Andy: Today we’re here to make your reviews as painless as possible, and to affirm: it’s worth the effort to write relevant and specific reviews for your team. You can do this.

Emma: Indeed. I want you to feel confident in your ability to put together a useful document. I want it to accurately reflect the reviewee’s full contributions, and I want it to provide supportive, instructive information that applies to the immediate future.

Andy: Got it? Now who’s ready to write?

Emma: Truly though, I have high expectations for us all! I agree writing performance reviews can be tedious in the best of times — and totally brutal when it’s someone who’s underperforming, or unlikable, or both. But when it comes to performance reviews, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for anything less than thoughtful and fleshed-out. I deserve it, you deserve it, and so do the people you’re reviewing. Like we talked about last time, they are important and hold a lot of power.

Andy: For me, the performance review has always been a big moment of trust-building or trust-breaking with my manager. If they wrote a real review that accurately reflected my work — that showed they saw my effort and understood my experience and that they were there to build me up — I was excited to work for them. I wanted to be on their team. A bunk review? Well, it’s hard to put in effort when you know it won’t land.

Emma: A legit review doesn’t mean it has to be hard to write, though. It doesn’t even have to be particularly well-written.

Andy: Yes, let that sink in! You do not need to create a perfect document. I sometimes get confused and equate “important and valuable” with “strenuous effort and lots of hours.” The goal here isn’t to wow anyone with our prose. We just need to show that we’ve been paying attention.

Emma: Generally, performance reviews focus on a person’s strengths and areas for improvement. Most orgs have some sort of review template that everyone is responsible for filling out, so we’re not going to dive into the format of these things.

Andy: Right. Most of the companies I’ve worked for have used some sort of spreadsheet, form, or software to submit short answers on a topic like Quality, or a value like Grit. To create a solid, trust-building review, I populate each box with a few essential elements: a direct statement of the performance level, an articulation of how they earned that rank, and a few pieces of specific evidence. If I do that in each box, I’ll have built a complete and valuable review — the kind I’d like to get, and the kind I want to give.

Emma: If for whatever reason your company is asking you to do some sort of open-ended free write, shoot us an email and we’ll figure it out together. For everyone else, let’s get started with what sentences need to go in this review.

A No-Fail Formula for Successful Performance Reviews

There are five things we look for in a cogent, clear, and supportive review. They can go in any order, but before you deliver the final draft, check that they are all there. (May we suggest color-coding…)

1. Summary sentence. State what you are evaluating and how your reviewee measures up. This sentence should be short, direct and concrete.

2. “How” sentence. What earned them this rank? These takeaways should be something everyone is aware of and actively working towards — often these are detailed out in the company or on your team’s scorecard. Remember, you are not inventing anything. Your reviewee should know all year long what you are looking for and measuring.

3. Evidence. Give a couple of specific examples that prove that “How” sentence. Your prepwork will serve as the outline for this section — your first draft might even be a bulleted list pulled from those notes. Tone here is important. We use an emoji-meter to help us nail the the kind of language we use:

Exceptional: 🤩
Exceeds Expectations: ⭐
Meets Expectations: 👍
Below Expectations: 👎
Unacceptable: ⌛

4. Impact statement. Why does this evidence matter? What happened as a result of the work?

5. Room for improvement. What do they need to do differently to move to a higher ranking at the next performance review? This information is critical for everyone, but especially for those who aren’t (or are just barely) meeting expectations.

Let’s check out some examples.

Exceeds Expectations

Your quality is above expectations. Your documentary shorts are exceptionally well-researched and in-depth. In your report on egg production, “A Barn So Full,” you were able to uncover the source of the salmonella outbreak and trace it to its origin. In addition, you found evidence that proved the local government officials were aware and bribed to stay silent. Through relationship-building, you were able to land four on camera interviews with people who had previously remained silent. Your short was powerful. We had a record 9M views, a Peabody nomination, the District Attorney is prosecuting the city council, and the state government is considering a bill to change the laws for egg production. This type of well-researched and in-depth reporting embodies our mission of “bringing truth to light.” That same research level and excellence are evident in more than four of your other shorts: “The Trader Joe’s Snafu,” “The Penthouses No One Lives In,” “The $20M City Council Seat,” and “No Wonder These Textbooks are Terrible.” The next step from here is to give you the keys for larger budgets and bigger teams to make your impact even larger. You are definitely ready.  

Meets Expectations

Your demonstration of Influential Communication meets expectations. You regularly surface better approaches to our production systems and incorporate the ideas of others. Your reports always have the capacity to drive important results. However, your written recommendations could be more direct and constructive in order to drive those results faster, especially with external partners. For example, your idea to overhaul the blueprint review cycle was much better than our old system. It saves us days every cycle, and therefore gives us more flex in our overall per-project budget. It also effectively included ideas from the engineering team, the marketing team, and the client. To make your communication even more impactful, look to improving your organization and documentation to get at-a-glance buy-in. Your department-wide email about changing the agenda for our quarterly update meetings was very easy to understand and adopt quickly — let’s work on applying these same principles to your longer form reports.

Below Expectations

Your productivity is below expectations. In each admissions review cycle, your productivity goal is to review 1,000 applications, which you aren’t hitting. In Spring 2020, you reviewed 545 applications. In Fall 2020, you reviewed 789. You’ve definitely improved over the course of the year, but still aren’t hitting the 1,000 expectation. When you don’t hit your goals, one of two things can happen: either your teammates have to pick up the slack, or we don’t admit enough students to the school. When enrollment is low, we don’t receive the funding to maintain our full curriculum. You’re on the right track for getting your productivity up by next quarter. Your use of scheduled admissions time blocks and weekly micro goals are having an impact. Now you need to up your pace. If you use the same time blocks but reduce each review from 7 to 5 minutes, you’ll be able to hit the 1,000 goal. A few strategies we can discuss more that can help are making more rapid rejection calls and getting more familiar with the rubric for borderline acceptance cases. 

Some Tips to Help You Combat Writing Biased Reviews

Performance reviews are subjective documents. The one very good thing about that is you’re able to include thoughtful nuance and context in your written assessment — that will be especially important after such a trauma-packed year for you and the people on your team. But there’s also a lot that can go wrong. These types of ambiguous, open-ended assignments are ripe for pretty much every bias there is: gender, race, age, ability, appearance, you name it. These are a few to review (and re-review) for before hitting submit.

Look at the whole picture — not just a couple of recent examples

Recency bias, as well as what is often called “halo/horns” bias, keeps you from looking at the full breadth of contributions and instead plucks the most recent, the single best, or the single worst moments to anchor the entire rating. A good review uses lots of data points from the entire review period to make that judgement. This is why you did all that pre-work!

Ask yourself: How much evidence do I have to support this rating? What other examples do I have? Are there examples of the opposite? Who else can I ask to get more data and information about this person’s performance?

Everyone should know and agree on the measuring stick

Your review vocabulary will most likely be given to you by your HR department. Often it’s something like: Exceptional, Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Below Expectations, Unacceptable or maybe Above Average, Slightly Above Average, Average, Slightly Below Average, Below Average.

If you’re in any way unclear about what type of performance merits each of these rankings, you need to ask your organization for help creating a framework. When left open to individual interpretation, we’re all more likely to favorably rate the folks most similar to us, who agree with us, who made a good first impression, who are strong in the areas we are weak — and vice versa. It’s a mess, and one that especially impacts people of color and women.

Ask yourself: What framework am I using to make these decisions? What distinguishes Exceeds from Exceptional? What is the difference between Meets and Below? Who can I ask to help build or take a look at this framework? Do the people on my team know what I’m looking for?

Avoid highlighting qualities or traits that aren’t directly attached to performance

Lots of times this comes in the form of personality traits — like how Kendall’s positivity makes her a joy to work with, or Raul’s aggressive style alienates other teams. This kind of assessment is pretty much always detrimental to women who are more often judged on personality expectations (as opposed to work achievements) than their male peers, and less likely to receive praise and actionable guidance they need to advance.

Ask yourself: Are there any mentions of personality that I can delete? Would I include this point about every other person on my team? Is this something that’s explicit in their job description or listed in company values?

Make sure the tone and content of your review match the summary ranking

If you’ve told someone they are Meeting Expectations and then write a starry-eyed, glowing review with no information on how to hit a higher benchmark, something has gone wrong. (The same is true if they get a Meeting Expectations and you’ve included a 14-point plan on what they need to improve….)

You may have stumbled into some sort of central tendency bias, where everyone gets a middling score because it feels risky to make a more extreme call. But those calls are where the trust between you and your reviewee lives. Rank the people on your team as high as you can honestly, especially if there’s any sort of alignment or salary negotiation attached to your evaluation. Write amazing supporting evidence for them, and be ready to defend your selections. If you have to bump anyone down (maybe there are budgetary constraints or you’re only “allowed” to rank a certain number of people at each level) go back to your draft and evaluate the tone to make sure it matches the new ranking.

Ask yourself: If I covered up the statement sentence, would I be able to accurately guess the ranking? Did I have to re-calibrate? If so, did I take another edit pass for tone?