How to Master Performance Reviews

Published on November 19, 2018

Express gratitude for any kind of feedback you receive, because it presents opportunities to improve. 

Traditional Performance evaluations are going extinct. The rapid pace of change in the modern business landscape has decreased the utility of formal, once-a-year reviews, which once loomed large over workers' careers and earnings. 

Most employees won't miss those dinosaurs, experts say, noting that younger workers especially crave more frequent feedback. They tend to be happier with the continuous performance review systems evolving to fill the void, which are "more frequent, more employee-centric, more coaching-in-nature conversations between manager and employees," says Anna Tavis, clinical associate professor of human capital management at New York University. 

No matter what kind of review system your company uses, the first step to mastering it is finding out how exactly you will be evaluated. Here, experts explain the different processes you may encounter and how to effectively use the feedback they provide. 

Annual Performance Reviews

They're not trendy anymore, but vestiges of the annual performance review do remain at some companies. These systems are largely designed to assess the extent to which workers meet company goals and reward top performers with salary increases and promotions

Some annual reviews use quantitative ratings or rankings to measure workers. Others rely on qualitative performance review phrases, such as: 

  • Exceptional; exceeds expectations; meets expectations; improvement needed; unsatisfactory
  • Skills observed; skills not observed
  • Goals achieved; goals not achieved

Some companies use a "forced ranking" model made famous by General Electric to distinguish top performers from average and underperformers. Top and underperformers usually account for small percentages of the company's workforce, leaving most people stuck vaguely in the middle. 

Before an annual review, workers may have the opportunity to assess their own performances and influence how their managers evaluate them. In anticipation of this, employees should take notes throughout the year about their achievements and how they've helped meet or exceed company goals. 

Workers not given the opportunity to submit self-reviews should still document their successes as they occur. Then, a few weeks before review time, they should present their managers with a list of specific examples to consider. Otherwise, a manager who hasn't taken good notes on her employees may base their reviews only on what she remembers from the previous few weeks or months. 

Continuous Conversations

In contrast to annual reviews, which assess an entire year's worth of labor in one snapshot, continuous performance evaluations measure work in smaller increments and may take place at any time or during frequently scheduled meetings or "check-ins." This system, which emphasizes coaching, allows managers and employers to tinker with goals and adjust strategies more often. 

Continuous reviews are attractive to company leaders who think "if you develop your employees throughout the year, they'll be more motivated and work harder in the long run,". "And they'll progress in their career faster. It's a win-win." 

Rather than create obvious competition through employee rankings, continuous reviews may measure workers' progress in achieving incremental, individualized goals they set for themselves with managers' input. Employees tend to react better to reviews that judge them against their own past performances rather than against their peers, according to research from Columbia Business School published in 2018. 

Just because these conversations may feel more casual than annual reviews doesn't mean workers should take them less seriously. In a continual review system, every piece of feedback from the boss matters

Why Performance Reviews Matter

Beyond setting salaries, evaluations have other serious implications. They may be used as justification for firing employees or reveal a manager's bias against an individual or group of workers. 

Before a company lays off employees, its leaders have to decide which criteria to use to winnow the staff. They may use seniority, retaining those workers who have been with the company longest and firing those most recently hired. This method is objective and unlikely to result in claims of discrimination. 

But leaders may prefer to keep their top performers instead.  In that case, they may look through performance evaluation files to identify weaker workers to fire.  It's important, then, to make sure you're being evaluated fairly. Bias and favoritism can color performance reviews. Research shows they're typically harsher on women than men and more likely to pass subjective judgment on women's character and style instead of their performance. 

Seeking and Responding to Feedback

Even if you work for a company that uses continuous performance evaluations, you still may feel you're not getting the feedback you need to succeed. If that's the case, ask for it. After all, workers bear some responsibility for managing their own careers. 

Whether the evaluations you receive are positive or negative, your first response should be to offer thanks.  If evaluation comments are negative or critical of your performance, keep the conversation productive by asking your manager, "What's the one thing I can do to improve moving forward?" and requesting coaching to help you meet that goal.  Demonstrating a grateful and forward-thinking attitude in the face of critiques can turn the situation into a favorable one. 

However, if you think you're being evaluated unfairly, ask your manager to explain his or her rationale with concrete examples. If the manager's response doesn't satisfy you, consider raising your concerns to that person's supervisor. 

If all else fails to resolve your concerns:  Employees always have the right to raise a legal issue especially if negative reviews seem to stem from discrimination.

(Source:  AICPA - CPA Letter Daily - US News & World Report - October 23, 2018)