Tips to Conducting a Successful Review. Part 1: Writing the Review.

Date: September 13, 2010

A well-written performance review not only provides your employees with feedback to help them work toward company goals, it provides you with a framework that will help you deliver effective in-person reviews.

Since performance reviews can also assist you in evaluating employees if you have to counsel, discipline or terminate them—and can provide your business with legal protection in the event a disgruntled employee takes legal action—it’s crucial to get it right in writing.

Blake McHenry, owner of The Growth Coach, a business coaching franchise based in Columbus, Ohio, offers the following advice on writing performance reviews.

Preparing for the Review
In writing the review, it’s best to rely on documentation you’ve kept throughout the year rather than on memory. This helps keep your legal bases covered.

  • Plan. Create an “Annual Development Plan” (or a comparable plan) for each employee that’s built around goals and has consistent, measureable results, McHenry says. Ask each employee to write the plan, turn it into his or her supervisor and have the supervisor revise it. Review it to evaluate whether the employee has met the goals.
  • Follow up. Schedule quarterly check-ins to evaluate employee progress. Take notes during these check-ins about the employee’s concerns, the solutions you came up with and the steps you both agreed to take, as well as the employee’s behavior. Use these notes to assist you in writing the review. McHenry advises going back four to six quarters to look for positive and negative trends.
  • Document. Documentation provides more data to fall back on in the event you must take disciplinary action or fire an employee. Because courts take documents more seriously than hearsay, “[Documentation] is the most underutilized opportunity to protect yourself [legally],” McHenry says.

Create Quality, Concrete Feedback
When you’re writing the review, be frank and specific about where employees need to improve. Define goals for the employee using the SMART acronym: all goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Sensitive. Identify with employees their opportunities for improvement, tell them why and how they can improve, and under what timeline you expect them to do so. Give employees a business reason for change. “It makes it less personal and more about the success of the business,” McHenry says.

Don’t forget to acknowledge the employee’s strengths and contributions to the business. “It’s as important to recognize the strengths and accomplishments as it is to talk frankly and specifically,” he says.

Identify Modes of Support
After you’ve defined areas of improvement for the employee, identify potential resources for training and support so the employee can improve. Such resources could be taking a class for skill training, meeting with a business coach or having another employee serve as a mentor. These should be helpful possibilities you can discuss with the employee. “It moves from ‘this is broken’ to ‘let’s work together to fix it.’”

Make It Legal
To avoid giving an employee grounds to sue you over discriminatory language in a performance review, “make the language about the employee’s performance, not about the person,” McHenry says. Any criticism should be factual—like identifying the low number of sales an employee made, rather than how that employee wastes time gossiping at the water cooler. Have a human resources professional or a legal professional review all performance reviews for you. “It’s cheap insurance,” McHenry says.

See Part 2 of this article, Tips to Conducting a Successful Review: Delivery and Salary Discussions.

NFIB Member Benefit: A “Model Employee Handbook” is available free to NFIB members.

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