Writing Useful Performance Reviews: Delivering the review

This article is the final in my series on valuable performance reviews. This article discusses how to deliver the review and salary news to your report.

a photo of a performance review at a conference table

This article is the final in my series on valuable performance reviews. The first part addressed preparing for the evaluation. The second part covered writing the assessment. The third part explained how to make a salary recommendation. Finally, this article discusses how to deliver the review and salary news to your report.

Each review discussion is one of the most important meetings in a person’s professional life. The primary goal of the meeting is as a milestone in a career journey. You will give the person an understanding of the progress they have made and insight into how they can get to the next stage of their career.

All the work preparing and writing the performance appraisal can go to waste by delivering the review poorly. I have always found the review conversation the most nerve-racking for me as a manager because that is where you see the effect of your (hopefully) well-considered analysis on the person. And people are… people. The conversation is always a bit awkward, given the stakes for the person receiving the review—but from there, it can go in many unexpected directions. I’ve had tense, combative conversations with people receiving a very positive review. Conversely, I’ve had a very unexpectedly genial and optimistic conversation with someone accepting a poor review. Even if you know the person well, the review conversation can be challenging.

Common advice is to give precise feedback to the people who report to you frequently during the year. If you do this, the review itself should not surprise them, as it would be consistent with what you have already said. However, while someone may have heard the feedback, it is another thing to see it written on a piece of paper with a review “score” (if your organization does that) and a salary adjustment connected to that feedback. Even if you are confident that nothing written in the review is new information, the person receiving it may not feel that way.

The best method I’ve found for having these discussions go smoothly is to come to the meeting prepared, give the person time to digest their review before the dialogue, and structure the conversation itself.

Preparing for the discussion

If you have followed the spirit of the process in the previous articles, you have assembled, organized, and interpreted a lot of data to write the review. This data is also helpful for your preparation and during the conversation itself. Having the information to explain things further if there are questions or disagreements is valuable. Their memory or interpretation of events is sometimes very different than yours or that of their peers.

Read over their review again. Make sure you have the data at hand to support the evaluation you wrote in case there are questions.

If you think the discussion might be tense, you may even want to rehearse the conversation in advance with another dev manager or someone from your company’s HR team. I sometimes rehearse challenging messages in the shower, looking for the right way to say something. You may also prepare positive messages to find the best way to say something without ambiguity.

Have empathy for the person receiving the review.

Think of the performance reviews you have received during your career. Both the good and bad. What made them stand out to you? Was it the review itself or the discussion (or lack thereof)? While the anticipation and the initial excitement of the evaluation are finding out about a promotion, raise, or bonus, and knowing that your hard work was recognized, the thing you will remember long after was the delivery of the information and the discussion that followed.

I’ve received at least fifty reviews since I started working. I don’t remember the numbers or most of the review scores. Still, I remember the manager who hadn’t put any thought into the process, the one who made promises review after review that they never kept, and the assessment where a manager made statements that were demonstrably false and, when shown evidence to the contrary, threw up their hands. I also remember the great conversations I had with the best managers I worked for that made me proud of what I had accomplished and excited about what more I could do (and how they would help me).

While you may be nervous about the conversation, the person you speak to is even more so. For you, it is the conversation that is scary. For them, it is the implications of the discussion on their livelihood. So come to the dialogue with that understanding and empathy for their position.

Give the person their review to read beforehand.

There is always the question of when to let the person read the actual document. Over the years, I have tried it three different ways:

  • Handing the person the review after sitting down to the discussion and letting them read it before speaking;
  • At the end of the review conversation, to read afterward; and
  • Giving the assessment to them the day before or the morning of the conversation.

The method that seems to work best is to give the person the assessment to review several hours before the review discussion, saving the actual numbers for the conversation.

When you give the person time to read and process the review document before the meeting, it allows them to prepare for the meeting. It takes some of the person’s concerns away because they know what to expect in the conversation itself, which makes the conversation less stressful for them. If they disagree with the assessment, it gives them time to prepare any argument/evidence they wish to present, making it feel less like an ambush. By sharing the review in advance, I have found that the conversation itself is often more substantive and valuable.

The review discussion

Start with a brief introduction.

While you both know why you are there, it is good to start the discussion with some of the broader contexts around the review process and anything around the company’s performance that will be relevant to the meeting (like a limited raise budget in a tough economic year). But, unfortunately, that broader context often gets lost in the review conversation itself, which can lead to confusion or misunderstandings.

Don’t bury the lede.

If you’ve given the document to the person in advance, they will join the meeting with an idea of what to expect in the conversation. However, they will still be wondering about the salary numbers. While you may be talking about other things, until the person knows what their salary change is, they will wonder about it. To make the conversation more valuable, I like to share the salary change information or promotion early in the conversation. Once the person knows the most critical information they will receive, they can focus on the more extensive discussion about career development.

Discuss the document.

Discuss each section in the assessment together to make sure that there is a common understanding and agreement. Now is when you might share more details or data around your statements if needed. Do not just ask, “Do you agree with this section?” Instead, make sure they understand your comments, that you have answered any questions they have, and that they either concur with your assessment or at least appreciate your perspective and the data behind your conclusions.

Where to go from here?

If the review conversation is a checkpoint along a career, it is essential to help the person understand where the next checkpoint could be. It is vital in the review conversation to talk to the future and reflect on the past. Now is an excellent opportunity to give hope and support to someone who had a problematic review cycle or inspire someone who has been doing well to achieve even bigger goals.

Hopefully, you have been having regular discussions about the person’s career aspirations. The review discussion is the right time to confirm their goals and discuss how you can help them achieve them. What opportunities can you present to them that will help them grow professionally between this discussion and the next review discussion?

Be very careful about making promises that you can’t keep. There are many things beyond your control in the review process, like the raise budget, the stock pool, company performance, global economic situations, or a final promotions approval. Even if you had all those things within your control now, you might move on to a new role or new company by the time of the following review. If you make a promise and cannot keep it, you will demoralize the person and lose their trust. So choose your words carefully when talking about the future.

After the discussion

Within a few days of the discussion, write the person a note confirming any statements from the conversation, the answers to any questions you didn’t have during the dialogue, and the agreed-upon growth plan. If you have a shared agenda for your 1:1s or a list of topics to discuss, make sure that you regularly review any growth plans by adding them as a discussion topic.

Problem scenarios

What if the person disagrees with my assessment?

From time to time, someone will decide that your interpretation of the data is incorrect and, therefore, your review is wrong. When this happens, go over the person’s data you collected for the appraisal. If they have some information you didn’t receive in the process that causes you to reconsider, don’t promise them that you will change the review. Investigate the new information and if you want to change things, discuss it with your manager. This kind of late change rarely happens, however.

If they continue to refuse to accept your assessment, invite them to sit down with you, your manager, and a person from the people team to discuss it. You want the person’s concerns heard, but if they don’t have any new data, you also want someone in the conversation who will support you.

What if they want to negotiate a different raise?

People will occasionally believe that the salary discussion is a negotiation. I have heard that this is common in a few cultures, but it is not generally done that way. As I discussed in the previous article, the person’s new salary is arrived at as part of a long process, and there isn’t much—if any—flexibility by the time you are delivering the review to the person.

You generally can’t change their salary autonomously, so if you agree to reconsider and then you can’t change the number, you look ineffectual as their manager. Also, changing their salary will encourage others to try to negotiate in the salary review discussion (the word always gets around when something like this happens).

If someone is unhappy with their raise, discuss what they could do during the next review period to justify making a more significant raise recommendation. But, once again, don’t promise anything!

If someone was expecting an entirely unrealistic raise, you might want to share with them a bit about how the salary review process works and help them understand what normal looks like.

What if their friends at other companies got much larger raises?

Occasionally, in the salary review discussion, someone will tell you about their friend who got a 50% raise. They will also tell you about an article they read that says many companies are giving considerable raises to retain employees. Given how charged salaries are as a subject and how competitive the technology industry is for good talent, much disinformation about salaries is constantly circulating.

When faced with these stories, it is worth discussing your company’s salary benchmarking process. Help the person understand that there will always be outliers and unusual situations, but express that those are the exception and not the norm. It is also worth discussing the non-salary aspects of your company that make it an exciting place to work. Companies often look to salary as their only employee retention tool when it is hard to retain employees because of their culture, lack of growth opportunities, or uninteresting projects.

If you’ve been regularly giving feedback, you’ve prepared for writing the review, and you’ve prepared for the review conversation, it will almost always go well.

In this article, I talk about the many ways the review discussion can go wrong because that can make the whole process scary for many people. It is good to be prepared for the conversation to go in a challenging direction. However, if you have been open with people about their performance and regularly given them feedback, and you talk to them about how you will help them improve their performance, the tough conversations are few and far between.

I usually end the performance review process proud of what each person has achieved and excited about helping them reach their potential. That is my hope for you as well.


The four parts of this series are:

  1. Assembling the data
  2. Evaluating the data and writing the review
  3. Making salary recommendations
  4. Delivering the review (this article)

Thanks to Laura Blackwell for editing assistance

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