Let's be honest: many managers are terrible at performance appraisals. Whether it's being so vague and sugarcoating all feedback to the point where the actual evaluation is useless, or being so direct that it actually makes employees cry, managers often find it hard to strike the right balance.
As HR professionals, it's often down to us to use our expertise to help managers. So, here are our best tips and guidelines for appraisals, including examples of useful performance review phrases for a range of situations.
Performance reviews: What NOT to do
Don't be vague
A vague performance review is a waste of everyone's time. Without specific feedback and examples, it's near impossible for employees and managers to make progress towards goals. A manager should never use vague performance review phrases like 'good work' or 'poor performance' alone; always explain and specify. Yes, it can be time-consuming to write these detailed evaluations, but they're worthwhile to ensure that employees are adequately recognised and supported in their professional development.
Performance reviews are a valuable part of performance management but only if they are used to provide honest and constructive feedback. While managers may feel tempted to sugar-coat their evaluations to spare employees' feelings, it's important to avoid this as it fails to help employees improve their performance. Overly 'nice' feedback may lead to complacency among employees, causing them to not push themselves to improve or achieve goals. Plus, it can lead to misunderstandings or damage to the trust between employees and their superiors, causing issues for working relationships.
Don't be overly negative
However, this certainly does not mean that managers should be overly harsh in appraisals either. When giving feedback, managers should focus on specific behaviours and outcomes, rather than making broad generalisations or personal attacks. They should also be clear and direct in their language, while avoiding language that is overly negative or confrontational. Performance reviews can be sensitive times for employees, and it's important to ensure that team members see appraisals as a collaborative, honest, and transparent process instead of something to be dreaded.
Don't rely on self-evaluation alone...
Both self-assessments and 360 degree feedback can be valuable additions to the performance review, but it's important to remember that these should not be the only feedback an employee receives on their performance.
Self-appraisals run the risk of bias or imbalance. Some employees may rate their performance higher than in reality due to their more generous perception of their work. On the other hand, others may rate their performance lower because of a lack of confidence, impostor syndrome, or even a fear of being penalised by their manager for an overly positive self review.
So, while self performance evaluations can be a valuable tool in helping team members become more self-aware and critically evaluate their performance, they should not be the only form of appraisal they receive.
... and don't rely on 360 degree feedback alone either
Similarly, it's important to avoid relying on 360 degree feedback as the only type of performance appraisal an employee receives. Of course, 360 degree feedback can be a very useful and effective way of gaining a wider understanding of an employee's performance from their colleagues as well as their managers. However, just like self appraisals, this form of feedback can be susceptible to bias and should not be relied on alone.
360 degree feedback's usefulness is limited if other employees don't know how to share specific and constructive feedback. Consequently, it's important to train all team members -- not just managers -- in the art of giving effective feedback.
For effective performance reviews, it's important that feedback comes from an employee's manager who understands their role's expectations, performance, and future potential better than any of their colleagues. Therefore, if 360 degree reviews are implemented as part of your performance management strategy, it's essential that managers still lead the way in performance evaluations.
Don't be untimely
One of the problems with the traditional annual performance review is that it is by definition untimely. The format falls victim to recency bias -- the bias where only the most recent events are remembered and commented on, while events multiple months ago are forgotten. In this type of performance review, it's hard to give specific and sufficient feedback on past performance simply because it was so long ago.
Instead, we prefer a continuous feedback format, where employees and managers meet for more frequent and less formal check-ins throughout the year. While evaluation and goal setting are still important parts of this type of continuous appraisal, the frequency makes each meeting more relevant to the employee's progress.
Performance review examples
Here are some performance review phrases and paragraphs that managers can take inspiration from when writing appraisals, based around a few key themes.
'X demonstrates excellent verbal and written communication skills and is able to effectively communicate with team members. It's clear that she has built strong working relationships with her team and is a valued member of the group. She also displays great communication skills when conveying complex ideas to clients. Her enthusiasm about her work is clear when talking to clients such as in the weekly Friday calls, which is great to see. In these calls, sometimes she tends to over-explain due to this enthusiasm, so it would be good to see her work on being more concise.'
This is a very positive comment about an employee with good communication skills, but it also adds constructive feedback to help her improve in her role.
'Although X excels at verbal communication when he is in the office or on video calls, his written communication in emails or instant messages could use some work. He tends to take too long to respond to emails or doesn't reply at all, which leads to confusion when he is working from home. It's important that X tries to reply to emails in a timely fashion from now on.'
This is a balanced performance review paragraph which acknowledges the employee's good verbal communication while highlighting his written and online communication as an area for improvement.
'X's communication with his peers and superiors has been disappointing. He sometimes fails to share important information in a timely manner, which has led to delays in starting projects twice this year. Moving forward, it's important that X focuses on improving his communication skills to ensure that team projects run smoothly, and we will be meeting to check in on this regularly.'
This example of feedback for a poor performing employee is effective because it explains the problem and its consequences while also proposing a plan for improvement.
'X is an excellent team player and on multiple occasions has gone the extra mile to ensure that the team succeeds. This was particularly clear in the last quarter's project where X picked up extra work and supported his colleagues to make sure that the team met key deadlines. X truly embodies the company values with his commitment to helping the team succeed.'
This example of a review of a high performing employee is effective because it specifically mentions an example of a time where the employee showed good teamwork skills.
'Although X always demonstrates impressive independent work, they have had some trouble working effectively with other team members in recent months. They tend to prioritise their independent tasks and have not shown support for colleagues on their team on a few occasions. This is a shame because X has many useful skills that would benefit the entire team if shared. In the future, it would be great to see X stepping up to share knowledge and skills with the rest of the team.'
This paragraph shows how to kindly but firmly provide feedback to an employee whose performance in a team setting has been sub-par. This approach helps motivate the employee to work harder instead of discouraging them.
'Teamwork is an area that X should focus on improving this year. When difficult situations have arisen in the most recent project, X has shown a tendency to become defensive and shut herself off from the rest of the team. X needs to work on accountability and teamwork to ensure that she works with the team to overcome these difficult situations in future instead of trying to avoid blame. She will benefit from mentoring from a more senior employee to help her overcome this.'
In this example, the manager is both specific and analytical towards the employee's performance and proposes mentoring as a way to improve it. This provides a clear roadmap for improvement.
'Time management is clearly a strength for X, who demonstrates an impressive ability to prioritise tasks and use time efficiently in order to meet all deadlines. This makes him a valuable player on his team. In the next quarter, it would be good to see him sharing this skill with the rest of the team and encouraging them to follow suit in his time management techniques.'
This very positive review recognises the employee's skill and suggests that others on the team could also benefit from it, encouraging the team member to help develop this ability in others.
'X shows a lot of enthusiasm for her work but she sometimes struggles to manage her time effectively. She has a tendency to prioritise the tasks that appeal to her instead of the ones that are most urgent. As a result, X has missed two deadlines recently which has caused delays for the rest of the team. In the next quarter, we will create a time management plan to help X better prioritise tasks to meet all deadlines.'
In this performance review paragraph, the manager commends the employee's enthusiasm but suggests that a time management plan could help the individual improve their performance. This is a good way to bring balance to performance reviews.
'Time management should be a focus area for X in the next quarter, as multiple deadlines have now been missed and unexpected delays have been common. As a relatively new employee, we understand that it can be hard to predict how long tasks will take, which is why we will be working together to create time management plans for the next quarter.'
This example shows an employee who has not met expectations but acknowledges that they are new in the role and may need additional help with time management. Therefore, the manager proposes providing additional support in this area.
Attention to detail and quality of work
'X displays an outstanding eye for detail, reliably producing highly accurate work. She works effectively independently and can complete tasks with minimal supervision. Her creativity and imagination are assets to her team. However, it's clear that while X takes a lot of pride in her work she sometimes struggles to ask for help. This leads to X trying to do everything on her own, which is not always feasible. In the future, it would be good to see X work on her ability to seek help when she needs it and delegate key tasks instead of trying to handle everything independently.'
This review has some great constructive criticism and it encourages the individual to work on her ability to ask for help and delegate tasks to others, while also showing appreciation for the employee's talents.
'X tends to work quickly, which allows them to stay on top of deadlines but sometimes leads to small errors and oversights. As a result, these mistakes can take additional time to correct. In the future, it would be good to see X taking extra time to double-check her work for any of these small errors.'
This clear and to-the-point paragraph makes it clear that the employee will need to make changes to meet their manager's expectations for accuracy.
'There has been a lack of attention to detail in X's recent work, with many oversights and examples of poor quality work in June and July. This has led to their team members having to pick up the slack and do additional work to compensate for these mistakes. We will create a performance improvement plan to resolve this.'
In this review, the manager suggests a performance improvement plan (PIP) to help the employee improve their work, while also making it clear that the current standard is not acceptable.
Attendance and punctuality
'X demonstrates exceptional attendance and punctuality, always showing up early to meetings on time. This ensures that meetings can kick off promptly and makes them a positive influence on the rest of the team.'
This is a positive paragraph from a performance review and it highlights the beneficial impact that the employee's punctuality has on the rest of the team.
'Since his last performance review, X has demonstrated significantly improved attendance -- he has clearly made a real effort to improve this. X always arrives on time at the start of the day and is usually early to meetings. However, it has been noticed that X sometimes doesn't return from lunch breaks punctually, so this should be a focus going forward.'
By referencing the employee's improvement from the previous performance review, this paragraph shows that the manager has been carefully tracking the employee's progress and provides suggestions for future improvements.
'X's attendance has been below average this quarter, with a disappointing number of absences and poor punctuality. This has led to a lowered team morale. It's important that X improves punctuality in the coming months and we will be working together to create a plan to achieve this.'
In this performance review example, the manager explains that the employee's performance is not acceptable and explains the expectations for it to improve.
Making performance reviews perform
When used effectively, performance reviews are a powerful tool in the performance management toolkit. When used ineffectively, they can demotivate employees and lead to complacency and stagnation in the organisation. While the need for timely and constructive feedback may seem eye-rollingly obvious, the truth is that managers are often overworked and stressed and may struggle to find time to give performance appraisals the attention they deserve.
One of the best ways to save hundreds of admin hours and streamline the performance review process is by using HR software. XCD's HR and payroll software, for example, has a full-featured performance management module to help transform the entire process. Managers and employees can upload their discrete contributions to fully customisable performance review forms, making appraisals a collaborative and autonomous process. With automated reminders, HR no longer has to waste hours chasing for completion. Plus, real-time performance analytics can be easily incorporated for data-backed performance reviews.
With all these features and more, it's no surprise that XCD performance management software can help boost productivity by 10% and save hundreds of hours for HR.