Tough Stuff: How to Do an Annual Performance Review

At C&C, we know being a woman in business isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. That’s why we’re starting a new monthly series called Tough Stuff , where we talk about some of the less glamorous parts of having a killer career. Below, we’re sharing how performance reviews—scary and annoying as they might be—are crucial to a healthy work environment.

In a world of instant gratification, double tapping, and asking Siri for the answers to your burning questions, the concept of an annual performance review is pretty much as “over” as MySpace. Would you wait a calendar year before telling your surgeon they botched a recent procedure? Or a year to complain about bad service in a restaurant? Of course not.

And yet, the most common complaint I hear from entrepreneurs is that they just don’t have time for performance reviews. Sigh...if only they could press the “like” button and move on. Effective evaluations consist of real-time feedback that engage employees and produce better results. Similarly, if an employee isn’t performing to your standards, effective communication can help build a disciplinary file that will please your lawyer in the event they have to defend a future claim.

When clients tell me that formal, scheduled performance reviews are as realistic as the tooth fairy, I offer the following advice:

Make Feedback Part of the Culture, From the Top Down

Communication about performance expectations should begin when you hire an employee and should continue regularly. Your employees will perform best if you articulate what you want from them and give them guidance on how to get there.

When hiring managers, let them know that communication and feedback is one of your priorities. Encourage your managers to understand the value and importance of feedback to your company’s culture and improving employee output. Invest in training resources at the outset of employment in order to best achieve a trickle-down effect. Training can take the form of internal dialogue or bringing in a resource to coach your management team. Once they are trained, ensure that managers know they will be reviewed on the timeliness and quality of their feedback.

Create a For(u)m for Feedback

Ideally, feedback should be given in the moment, so an employee has the opportunity to correct or improve the behavior or work product. The easiest way to accomplish this is by email or via other digital forms. This serves both the purpose of feedback and creating a record, which can come in handy if disciplinary measures are needed—more on that later.

There are numerous performance feedback apps that allow self-reflection, managerial, peer, or even customer feedback. Alternatively, companies can develop an internal email template or intranet form so that all feedback touches on the same designated criteria. This cultivates a more objective and systematic approach to evaluations.

Define Success

Feedback is best given with measurable goals, whether individual or team-based. For example, you might define success by an on-time or on-budget delivery. If effective performance isn’t calculable by objective measures, create company values that the employee must be successful in and define tasks that exemplify those values. If “customer satisfaction” is a company priority, then timely resolution of customer complaints or high customer satisfaction ratings might be task-oriented successes. If your metrics aren’t being met, the employee needs to know that. And managers need to know that it’s part of their job to help workers perform at their highest level, which they can’t do without letting people know where they can improve. The performance feedback forum should double as a performance improvement plan, designed for disciplinary or coaching purposes.

When You’ve Tried Everything

What happens if an employee just isn’t getting “it,” and the feedback process needs to move to a more formal disciplinary process or termination? The time spent documenting performance deficiencies can help decrease liability when done properly. More frequently though, I get calls from clients lamenting about a terrible employee they need to fire (always immediately!), and when I ask to see the file, they send over a pile of glowing performance reviews. This undermines the reason for the termination (lack of performance) and makes the employee think they are being let go for a more sinister (or illegal) reason. To minimize risk and maximize performance, be honest, be timely, and be your employees’ best role model to success.

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Sahara Pynes is an attorney at Fox Rothschild LLP whose practices focuses almost exclusively on minimizing liability against lawsuits through preventative counseling on a range of employment issues. She works directly with business owners and their management teams to enhance company culture and provide practical strategies to manage human resources and risks. Sahara was named one of Angeleno Magazine’s Most Dynamic Women of 2018. If you’re a business owner who doesn’t know what forms to give a new hire, how to properly classify and pay employees/contractors or just wants to button up their HR issues, reach out to Sahara at SPynes@Foxrothschild.com to see if she can help.

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