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What is an Employee Performance Review?

6 min read
A performance review - sometimes known as an annual review or performance appraisal - is an opportunity for a manager and direct report to review the latter's performance against pre-agreed expectations and identify where improvements can be made. Here's a guide to performance appraisals and some examples of how they're run.

What happens in a performance review?

It’ll depend on the organization and the employee, but companies typically use performance reivew to give employees feedback on their work in a formal, standardized way. They may also combine the review with a pay or promotion review, or even to explain termination decisions.

How can performance feedback be given?

A manager might give employee performance feedback on one of 3 areas: 

  • Specific metrics – this is easier for roles where there are clear numeric targets. For example, a call center agent might be expected to successfully answer 300 customer questions a week, each in under 2 minutes; if they’re behind that, it’s easy to see.
  • Longer-term objectives – for roles with fewer specific targets, or where it’s hard to set them at the outset of a project, managers may need to comment on ongoing progress. For example, a client account manager might have short-term targets like response times; but that’ll be combined with longer-term ones like repeat work and client satisfaction.
  • Behavioral or learning objectives – you may want someone to focus on ‘soft skills’, like how they interact with others or how they adhere to the company’s values.

Often, the level of complexity of the role dictates the feedback you can give. A varied role with a looser job description may be more suited to behavioral or learning objectives.

Who runs a performance review?

It’s usually someone’s line manager, as they know most about the employee’s role and their current work.

Why do you need a performance review?

The first thing to say is that it shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise. While maintaining records and logging review feedback is often mandated by HR, managers and employees should gain a lot more from the process. Here are some of the benefits for managers:

  • Give fair and candid feedback to employees on their current performance
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of individual employees and whole teams
  • See if you have any allocation issues, where the wrong people are assigned to certain jobs
  • Help team members to develop as employees and people
  • Tie it into promotion or pay reviews
  • Explain individual and organizational goals
  • Use it as a goal setting opportunity for the coming months or years
  • Investing in the improvement and growth of employees is a key part of the employee experience

What makes a good performance review system?

It’s down to your wider company culture and the atmosphere in your team. If employees are happy and feel comfortable giving feedback, the review system works much better. If employees feel anxious or unhappy, they’re less likely to be open to feedback and talking about improving performance.

One of the most important factors is the line manager. Are they trained to do a review and ask the right questions? If they’re not, then the process can be counter-productive.

In the review itself, there are a few things that mark out a good one:

  • Purpose and structure – from the outset, an employee should understand what why the review is happening, what will be covered and what are the long-term objectives
  • Time for achievements – you should use the review to recognize an employee’s good work; it shouldn’t be entirely focused on areas to improve
  • The right questions – they should be open-ended so employees feel free to share; they shouldn’t be leading and encourage certain answers
  • Active listening and self-reflection – a manager should be open to feedback on their own performance or the company’s direction
  • Constructive feedback – managers should demonstrate ways to improve, not just highlight areas of poor performance
  • Evidence-led, not opinion-led – a manager’s personal feelings about an employee shouldn’t cloud their judgement; when commenting on their performance, they need to point to actual events
  • Actions – both the manager and employee should know what’s expected of them after the review ends

How often are performance reviews conducted?

In the past, performance reveiws were annual events, closely tied to pay or promotion reviews. That model is increasingly being replaced by more regular reviews, held every 3 or 6 months. And the more formal review is partnered by ‘performance conversations’, more regular meetings between managers and employees. 

What are the issues with performance reviews?

Some of the main criticisms of performance reviews are:

  • It’s conducted too infrequently and allows issues to fester in between reviews
  • It’s backward-looking and doesn’t help people perform better in the future
  • It doesn’t take into account feedback from peers or direct reports, just managers
  • There’s a lot of admin around running and recording reviews

There’s also a number of ways that feedback can be skewed against or in favor of employees:

  • Employees who are well-liked by their manager are more likely to get good feedback
  • Different managers’ personalities make it hard to compare teams – you can’t compare feedback from one team with a very tough manager, with one that is led by a more generous reviewer
  • Employees that question their managers or challenge how things are done are more likely to get bad feedback

You can take steps to counter some of these biases by using AI technology, monitoring employee scores across teams to identify outliers, or training your raters to spot their own unconscious biases and how to ask the right questions.


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