In Search of the Perfect Performance Review: 5 Steps to Improve the Process

Have you met a fan of the (name your adjective: cliched, outdated, crappy) yearly performance review? Me neither.

In corporate lore, the performance review is a time honored tradition. Every year, you sit across from your supervisor who tells you you meet expectations in most areas with a few areas of excellence and a few areas of improvement. On a five point scale, nobody gets a five or a one. And then repeat.

Is there a better way? Of course. But can you always implement that perfect way? Of course not. And that’s when we have to go back and figure out a way to work with constraints.

The perfect performance review

In a perfect world, the performance review itself would simply be a summary of the last year of real feedback, support, improvements and deficiencies. Since it is a summary, it would be quick to review and submit since all of the feedback is past tense, and any discussions and corrective actions would have been in the past as well. That leaves the performance appraisal as a final formality for record keeping purposes and to determine any performance based incentives or increases.

Of course, this cumulative performance review is a rarity. What is more likely is that the manager hustles around the last few weeks of the performance review period to try to remember what happened over the course of the last year. They might look back at notes they’ve taken or emails they’ve sent, but it is all pretty hopeless.

They’ll try to remember a couple of good things, a couple of bad things and then make the rest up. And it is easy to blame the manager, but especially in this day and age, it could be as likely that 20 plus direct reports plus 50-60 hours a week with no breaks could be the real culprit.

This has happened in good and bad workplace cultures, in big companies and little companies. There doesn’t have to be anything devious about it like is is often assumed. Sometimes, the perfect performance review is just perfectly out of reach.

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Technology to the rescue?

Like many problems in the HR space, vendors try to ride in on their white horse to save the day. And seeing some of these products, I know that many of them could and would help. Dick Grote, our guest yesterday on TLNT Radio, made an excellent point about technology systems that simultaneously make it easier and more difficult to deal with the performance appraisal issue.

It’s good if you’re staying up to date on documentation and are good at that aspect of management, but it doesn’t help you much if you don’t (and, it can actually complicate things). Managers attempt to log hundreds of entries in the last few weeks of the performance review process to get their documentation up to snuff and it creates another layer in delivering an effective performance review.

Doing annual reviews right

So if you, like so many people, can’t do the perfect performance review and can only do the old fashioned “sit down across from me and let’s go over your performance” style of performance review, here are some ways to make it work as best as possible:

  1. Don’t hold back action and feedback for reviews. If someone needs feedback, they need it as soon as possible. If there is someone who needs a promotion, pay raise or corrective action, sooner is better than later.
  2. Encourage managers to take notes in the way they prefer. If that’s a notebook, Word document or email, that’s fine as long as the information is captured somewhere. I had a manager who was calendar driven and used that to keep notes.
  3. Set rolling deadlines. Set a deadline to have 50 percent of the reviews done by a certain date and the rest by a later date. A procrastinating manager might not like it at the time, but they will thank you for spreading their workload out.
  4. Prepare your side of the performance appraisal table. If you have paper forms that need to be completed, or online submissions that need to be readied, make sure those are done completely before the requests start flowing.
  5. Get the backing of management to take baby steps in the right direction. Annual performance reviews done right can get the job done and are better than nothing, but that doesn’t mean they are are satisfying your company’s needs. Get top level commitment to start working in that direction.

It is easy to say that if you’re not going to do a great performance review, don’t do one at all. But for those who have worked in an environment that couldn’t produce a great performance review, we know that good, or even okay, is better than nothing.

And while that shouldn’t be your end goal, you should at least get a handle on a yearly process before you attempt to jam through the perfect performance review.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.