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.

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

Writing Useful Performance Reviews: Making a raise recommendation

This article is part three of my series on writing valuable performance reviews. The first part is about preparing for the evaluation. The second article discusses writing the appraisal. This piece will help you make a fair raise recommendation. The final part gives you tips on delivering the review.

Determining compensation is a crucial part of performance management. I fully believe in the Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose trio for motivation outlined in Daniel Pink’s book Drive. However, experience has shown me that even people who have all three of the trio still expect performance in their role to result in more significant compensation.

Aside from hiring or firing an employee, compensation decisions are the most important decisions a manager can make. The decision is significant because the basis for next year’s compensation is this year’s, especially if you stay at the same company. A manager’s mistake in remuneration can result in a significant difference in lifetime salary for someone. Therefore, the compensation change recommendation must be highly considered and fair.

In some companies, the manager creating and delivering the performance review has little input in the compensation decision. If this is your situation, it is still helpful to understand how salary works at other companies, since you may hire people from those places. It is also beneficial when you are responsible for that decision after a promotion.

How does the compensation process work?

Many junior managers have unrealistic expectations around what can be done with compensation because they don’t understand that it is part of the greater corporate budgeting processes. As a result, they imagine an infinite pool of money to draw from for raises.

Every company does its budget and compensation processes differently, but there are common aspects across all the companies I have worked at. One generally true statement is that larger companies will typically be more fixed in their processes and make exceptions infrequently.

The compensation budget is part of the larger company budget, which is agreed upon with the board of directors at the start of the year. An essential measure of the ability of the senior leadership team is their capability of working within the constraints of this agreed-upon budget. This budget objective means that at the most senior levels of the company, someone is keeping an eye on the total salary budget for your organization and will work very hard to make sure that it is not over budget. There is a target salary budget for your team based on the team’s current salaries and the board’s agreed-upon raise budget as a delta.

Your manager will recoup the difference from another team if they allow you to go beyond that budget. Does this mean you shouldn’t go over budget if it is warranted? No, but it means you need to have realistic expectations about what is possible.

To avoid the budget constraint challenges, line managers in some organizations do not have salary recommendation responsibility.

If you can make salary recommendations for your team, how does the procedure generally work?

You receive:

  • your teams’ current salaries and some indication of what their most recent raises were,
  • an idea of the overall budget target for the organization (usually presented as a percentage delta on existing salaries),
  • the salary bands that individuals are currently in, and
  • some guidance around the process (possibly including some default raise percentage for different levels of performance).

If you don’t receive all this information, you should request it. It is vital for the decision-making process.

You make an initial recommendation for each team member, which you send to your boss. Your manager combines your proposals with those of your peers, adds in their own direct reports (including you), massages the numbers somewhat, and passes it to their boss, who does the same. This process continues to the CEO.

A few weeks (or months) later, you receive the final salary numbers for all your reports to communicate to them, either as part of the performance review or separately. Sometimes the numbers are identical to those you recommended; sometimes they are different. Sometimes your boss knows why the numbers are different, and sometimes they do not.

Equity (stock), bonuses, and salary serve different purposes as part of a compensation plan.

Salary is just one part of a compensation scheme; stock, bonuses (if your company has them), commissions (usually only for the sales team), and benefits are all part of how a company attracts and retains its employees. Each of these elements has a different purpose.

Salary is a direct measure of employee performance. It is to reward someone for doing a good job. Employees who are “high performers” are paid more than others in the role whose work isn’t as valuable.

Equity, in the form of stock grants or options, is usually seen as a measure of employee potential. Since these vest over time, they are an incentive for an employee to stay longer. Therefore, you want employees who have a high potential to stay and grow at the company. Some companies also use equity to offset salaries, since the immediate cost to the company is less.

Benefits are often overlooked because they are given equally to all employees, but they can be vital to employee retention. For example, if an employee is interested in developing their skills, letting them know that the company can pay for additional training is a significant statement and may counterbalance a raise that they are not happy with.

When making recommendations around employee compensation, take all the aspects of your company’s compensation plan into account. Different elements will be more important at various times to your employees.

What about fixed compensation systems?

Some companies, notably Buffer and Gitlab, have adopted fixed formula models for employee compensation and transparency about those models. Company founders designed these models to be fair and reduce bias. I think there is a lot of potential in these models, and the people I know at companies that have them are fans.

Typically, the companies that do fixed compensation systems adopt them very early (instead of switching to them later). The companies are transparent about their compensation, which is critical with a nonstandard model. As such, people generally self-select into those companies. The mechanics of switching to that model seem very difficult to me.

It is worth paying attention to companies using these systems to see how they scale and grow and see if they become the norm.

What is the right raise for someone?

The significant part of the fixed compensation systems is that they take the bias and subjectivity out of the raise decision. The bias is all built into the decisions that created the original model. You should strive to be objective and fair for the more standard processes. You should validate the reasoning you use with your manager and peers to ensure that the organization uses a consistent rationale.

Start with their current salary.

Where is the person’s current salary within the salary band? Does that current salary make sense, given their past performance? Has the band gone up significantly since the last salary review period? Where do they sit relative to their peers in the same role/level doing similar quality work?

Now think about their performance since the last salary review.

Are they meeting your expectations or exceeding them? Not achieving them? What has been their trajectory over the last few periods? Are they gaining momentum? Losing it?

Is the person being promoted?

If you are promoting the person, you should be gauging them against the bands for their new level. Unless the promotion is long overdue, or the person was very highly paid relative to their peers in their previous level, they should be coming into the lower part of their new salary bands. Placing them in the appropriate spot in the salary band gives them ample room for raises as they grow into their new responsibilities.

Now, look at the target percentage for the organization.

Some of your team should be over that, and some should be under. Your boss will tell you if they expect you to achieve a budget target or not. Even if you anticipate not to come in exactly on budget, you shouldn’t be wildly off it. Now, based on the target budget, the person’s current salary, and their performance, put in your initial number for them.

If you aren’t given a spreadsheet with your team’s numbers, you should create one.

I generally have something like this (and create it if I don’t get one from the HR team).

(no, those aren’t real people or salaries)

A spreadsheet helps you look at your recommendations for people relative to one another, and it enables you to understand what you regard as the target for your team.

As you figure out your initial recommendation for each person, enter it into the spreadsheet.

Don’t pay attention to any of the other data while you do this. If it helps, you can hide any rows or columns that you are concerned may throw off your judgment. You can also enter it into another tab if you prefer.

After you have done your first-pass numbers for everyone on your team, you can see where you are relative to your budget. You should also look across the team to ensure you are using consistent logic. It is better to look at percentages rather than salary amounts at this stage. Are the overperforming people relative to your career rubric getting more significant raises than those underperforming or merely meeting expectations? Are the raises going to underperformers in alignment with their performance?

One way to approach this is to think about the raise conversation relative to the performance conversation. Are you saying the same thing with both? For example, a sizeable raise completely blunts a stern message to someone underperforming. Similarly, a slight raise blunts any positive message in the performance review for an overperformer.

If the raise percentages seem fair, look at the budget total.

Are you over budget? If you are over by a relatively small amount, and your manager has not asked you to be right on target, you may be ready to show them the numbers for their input. On the other hand, if your manager has asked you to be right on budget, then you will need to make some adjustments.

There are several things you can try to reduce the overall amount.

If you are significantly over budget, you can use one or more of several techniques for bringing your numbers down.

You may reduce all the raise recommendations by a fixed percentage amount.

Applying the same amount of reduction to all your recommendations keeps them the same relative to one another.

Instead of giving small percentage raises to underperformers, consider reducing them to zero.

If someone is significantly underperforming, recommend no raise rather than giving them an insubstantial raise. Receiving no raise will ensure a difficult review conversation, but it will reinforce the underperformance message.

Decrease individuals’ percentages to achieve a rounded salary number.

When given their new salary information, people will look at the percentage and the new salary number and remember one of them, the salary. They won’t recollect the exact wage; they will round the number in their heads. Take advantage of that to get some extra headroom.

Let’s look at one of our fictional employees, Sandy. Sandy has done very well this year, and you want to reward them with a big raise. Your first idea is a 9% raise, which will give them a new salary of 70,850. After doing the rest of the raises, you are more over budget than your manager is OK with. Since Sandy is your second-highest paid employee and is getting a big raise, you can give them a slightly smaller amount, and they will likely not miss it. Instead, if you gave them an 8.46% raise, that would give them a new salary of 70,500 (a nice round number), and it would save you 350. If you needed more room, 70,250 or even 70,000 are still big raises from their initial 65,000, but are only minor percentage differences from your initial idea.

Robinhooding helps you give more significant raises to lower-paid employees.

The rounding trick I mentioned above is also helpful if you work against budget constraints, but you want to give more significant raises to those on the lower end of the salary spectrum. A small percentage change for a well-paid person can be a very substantial percentage change for someone who is less well-paid. I call shifting small percentages from higher-paid to lower-paid employees Robinhooding.

If you are under budget, should you increase your raises?

The answer to this question will depend on your organizational culture and norms. If this is your first time making salary recommendations, you might ask your manager for guidance. If all your peers come in over budget, and you are under, you may either look fiscally responsible, overly critical, or like an obvious place to find more funding for your peers’ excesses. You don’t want your team to suffer for other managers’ inability to meet a budget.

If you are significantly under budget, you may want to reexamine your recommendations, as this would indicate a seriously underperforming team.

Once you are happy with your overall recommendations from an individual and budget perspective, take one last look at them before submitting them to your manager.

Are your recommendations saying something you do not intend? For example, is there one group getting the majority of the large or small raises? Look for your own unconscious biases appearing in the numbers. Once you are fully satisfied that your recommendations indicate the performance of the individuals on your team, submit them to your HR representative or manager for the next phase of the process.

What happens next?

Your manager may want to review your recommendations with you, or with you and your peers together. Your manager must ensure that each report uses consistent guidelines for their recommendations. They may do this independently or may pull all their manager reports together for a more extensive session (at a previous company, we called this the “Battle Royale” ).

Come prepared when it is time to review your recommendations with your manager or peers. Preparation should not be problematic if you have followed the recommendations from the previous articles. The more concrete examples you can provide to justify your proposals, the better.

Your manager will incorporate the input from you and your peers into a larger version of your spreadsheet. They may need to modify some of your numbers to make their numbers work. Your manager will then do a similar review with their peers, and it will go up the levels of the organization, potentially to the senior leadership team. The more information you give your manager, the easier it will be for them to preserve and defend your recommendations. The information you provide them will also give their manager more information.

Once there is agreement on the salary changes for the organization, the finance team updates the numbers in the payroll system. You then receive the final numbers to pass on to your employees.

I discuss the salary and performance review conversations in the following article.

The four parts of this series are:

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

Thanks to Laura Blackwell for editing assistance

Writing Useful Performance Reviews: Evaluating the data and writing the review

This article is the second in a four-part series on writing performance reviews. In the previous article, I wrote about preparing data for the assessment. In this article, I talk about filling out the review form. The next article discusses making salary recommendations. The final post covers delivering the review.

Have everything ready before you begin writing.

Before you begin to write your review, make sure you have the role and level definition for the person’s current role and level. You should also have the description for the job at the next level. If you followed my suggestions in the previous post, you have the folder with earlier reviews, notes from 1:1s and project meetings, the peer feedback, the person’s self-evaluation, and your notes on the work output. Your company’s performance review form and supporting process documentation are necessary as well.

Review your documentation.

If you followed my advice from the last part, you have assembled a large amount of data. You will now go through it all to evaluate the person’s performance relative to the standard. You may find it beneficial to highlight essential information in the documents as you review them or copy/paste them into a new file for easy reference.

If you can, do your review in one sitting. This process helps you build an understanding of the person’s performance. You are creating a context with as much data as possible, so keeping it in your near-term memory is beneficial. If you don’t have enough time to do this in one sitting or think you may be interrupted, take good notes that you can review after a break.

As you read over the data, you should be consciously building a narrative of the review period. Each person will have some highs and lows, but patterns of performance should emerge. After reviewing the data, you should have one or two specific messages to convey to the person about their performance. That is the goal of data accumulation and evaluation.

Start with the review form.

First, read through the review form, making sure you understand the expectation for each question. Then, if you are in doubt, use the company documentation on the process. Get clarifications from your HR partner if necessary.

Understand the role/level definitions.

Make sure you understand the person’s role expectations at the current level and the next level. The current level documentation covers the performance expectations the person should meet now. The next-level documentation is helpful for you to recognize performance beyond expectations.

Go over any previous reviews.

Read all the previous reviews the person has received at the company in chronological order. This review will help you see patterns and trends, and goals met and missed. The essential evaluations are the most recent, especially any from the last couple of years. Take extra care reading these to remind yourself of prior performance discussions (if you wrote them) and understand the current development areas.

What if you disagree with the assessments in reviews written by their previous manager?

Suppose the person is new to your team, or you are a new lead for an existing group. In that case, occasionally, you will read prior reviews and realize that the previous manager used a very different approach to performance than your own. Ideally, everyone is evaluating against the company’s career pathing rubric, but sometimes it is applied differently. In this case, you may need to prepare for some challenging conversations.

You might choose to treat this review cycle as a transitional one, giving people time to adjust to your management style. If you do that, make sure they understand how future reviews will work differently.

Read through your notes from your review of e-mail or messaging exchanges.

Scanning through your messages from the review period will help remind you of any events, successes, or challenges that you may have forgotten about during the review period.

Study the work output to understand the person’s contributions to their projects.

A reminder from the previous article: a person’s code contributions do not reflect the sum of their contributions. Senior developers may contribute less code because they are more efficient or spend time helping other people. Look at code reviews, bug notes, documentation, Architectural Decision Records, or anything else that will demonstrate contributions to the team’s projects.

You’re probably arriving at some opinions at this point.

By this point, you will have started to build the narrative, identified some possible key discussion topics, and formed opinions on the person’s performance. You likely started the process with ideas already, based on your interactions with the person over the review period. The views you bring at the start of the process aren’t necessarily incorrect. Still, they may be untrustworthy because of recency bias, affinity bias, or the person being very good at promoting their accomplishments (or taking credit for others’ work).

Now you will start to review the more subjective data. Does what you find conflict with or reinforce your existing viewpoint?

Review the peer evaluations.

Peer evaluations can be problematic. First, people can be tempted to cheat, colluding with their peers. Second, many people don’t want to criticize their co-workers. Third, they may worry about how their comments reflect on themselves. For these reasons, you will want to read between the lines when reading peer evaluations.

As you read through the peer comments, look for examples that support or challenge the narrative you have been building. If you find many things that challenge your message, you may reevaluate your opinions.

Read the self-evaluation last.

When people are evaluated based on something they produce, they naturally tend to create a narrative that accentuates their positive contributions and minimizes their negative ones. It isn’t necessarily deceptive; it is human nature. Therefore, I always read the self-evaluation last. I don’t want it to influence how I evaluate all the other data. However, the self-evaluation is still relevant because it is the person’s view of how things have gone—their side of the story.

There are a few things I always look for when reading this document: Are there good explanations for some challenges they had during the review period? How aware are they of their challenges and strengths? Are there any comments that might be relevant for the reviews of others on the team? Where are they interested in growing? Finally, is there anything that you can do to support them better in the following review period?

Now, write the review!

Having reviewed all the data, you are now ready to write the review. You have one or two messages for your narrative as well as the data to support it.

Be clear.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when writing a review is trying not to be too negative or too positive. Particularly problematic is using the “compliment sandwich” or vague language to avoid a challenging conversation when delivering the evaluation. Another mistake is creating a “balanced” review by overemphasizing small challenges or successes to offset a too positive or negative narrative.

When someone reads your review, they want to know if they are doing well or not doing well. If the person doesn’t know after reading the evaluation, it is not helpful to them. In addition, they should have a clear connection between their review and their salary adjustment.

They can’t all be extraordinary.

Often, I see inexperienced or poorly trained managers produce reviews for their teams that are uniformly good. “Everyone on the team is doing great!” they say. However, even on the highest performing teams, some members will contribute more than others during a review period.

Universally positive reviews are a signal that a manager is either not promoting team members (so they are all overperforming relative to their level), not paying attention (they are missing things), not challenging the individuals on the team, or setting their expectations too low. Exclusively positive reviews are a signal about the quality of the manager more than the quality of the team.

Yes, you can have a great team where everyone is contributing well. However, each person still has strengths and weaknesses compared to the role/level rubric. You need to understand that you aren’t doing your duty to your team or the company if you don’t evaluate people objectively.

Suppose you want to emphasize that the individuals on your team are outperforming individuals on other teams (often crucial if your organization “stack ranks”). Make that point in the accomplishments noted from each team member. Rating your team universally high just looks like you are trying to game the system.

They don’t all suck.

Something I see less often is a manager rating their team uniformly poorly, usually when a new manager joins an existing group. When I see this, I wonder if the manager is trying to make a statement about the team they inherited, if they are setting the initial base level low so they can show improvement, or if they are setting their bar way too high. As with overly positive reviews, this behavior is often more indicative of issues with the manager than the team.

If you find yourself compelled to give poor ratings to the entire team, challenge yourself to defend your ratings by comparing each person’s accomplishments against the rubric. Are you being too harsh in your judgment or can you justify each of the ratings? Use a “five whys” exercise for each person’s rating. Do find unique causes for each person’s poor performance, or does it all come back to you?

Use the data you collected and analyzed in your review.

As you fill out the form, answer each question to support your message for the recipient. Answer each question with a statement, then provide data that supports your answer.

Avoid phrases that ascribe intent to the person’s actions. Instead, speak to what they did and the measurable effect it had. Do not use expressions like “I think” or “it seems.” These phrases show a subjective interpretation. You want to ground your assessment in facts. Being fact-based avoids any disputes about the review if the person does not like the result.

Provide a plan to help underperformers.

Identifying areas of growth for someone is helpful for them. However, if you are being straightforward, a review for someone underperforming can be demotivating. Rather than finding positive things to balance the assessment at the risk of making it less forthright, you should focus on how you will help the person address their performance issues. If the performance is so poor that the person will put on a performance improvement plan, be specific on what they need to change to move off of the PIP.

Provide next steps for growth for the people performing well.

What are the next steps for those on your team who are overperforming against their role/level? What opportunities can you identify for them? What new responsibilities? Are they on a path for promotion? Where should they focus on continuing their growth?

People who are doing well aren’t usually satisfied with being recognized for their work (although it is imperative to acknowledge their work). They want to know what is next for them. They want more responsibility, more challenge. They want to expand their skills. How will you help them do that in the next review period? They will want to know.

There is nothing wrong with just doing the job.

Most of your team will not be underperforming or overperforming. They will be doing their jobs well. The work that these folks do is essential. They are how the team’s work gets done. Recognize their strengths and weaknesses and tell them how you will support both.

Some are happy to continue to deliver solid performance, and unless your company has an up-or-out culture, this is fine. People will have natural ebbs and flows in their careers.

If the person is ambitious, focus on opportunities for their growth and be clear on what overperforming requires. The company’s career pathing rubric is a reference to show them what is needed.

When you have written all the performance reviews, reread them.

Once you have completed all the performance appraisals, go back and review them. Look for patterns in your assessments. Look for potential unconscious bias. Try to read them as your manager or some future manager of the person would. Are you providing enough information to justify your statements? As this process can take a long time, does it seem that you put less effort into later reviews when you got tired?

Before submitting them to your review system, make sure that you are happy with them individually and as a group. If you have time, you may want to wait a few days after writing the last review before you reread them to give yourself some space.

If your review process includes a grade, ranking, or nine-box classification, ensure that your performance reviews support where you put each person. Also, look to see what the distribution of rankings or grades makes sense. For example, are your recommendations so clustered that it doesn’t seem that you are using good judgment? Does your review justify your choices?

Now that you have written your reviews, be ready with your raise recommendations.

In some companies, salary change recommendations are part of the performance review writing process. It runs as a separate process in other companies (usually near the performance review process on the calendar). Line managers do not have direct input into compensation changes at some companies.

However compensation changes work in your company, it is good to understand how to make compensation decisions/recommendations for your team. That is the subject of the next article in the series.

The four parts of this series are:

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

Thanks to Laura Blackwell for editing assistance

Writing Useful Performance Reviews: Assembling the data

It’s December, and that can mean only one thing. For many of us, it is now—or soon will be—time to write performance reviews for our team. Writing reviews can be daunting for many, especially those with large groups or little experience. There are some things you can do that will make the process less onerous, no matter what format or schedule your company has.

It’s December, and that can mean only one thing. For many of us, it is now—or soon will be—time to write performance reviews for our team. Writing reviews can be daunting for many, especially those with large groups or little experience. I often hear managers (even senior leaders) bemoaning the effort it takes to write the reviews for their group members. However, there are some things you can do that will make the process less onerous, no matter what format or schedule your company has.

I’m going to break this subject into four parts:

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

Why do we do performance reviews?

The rationale we used to hear for performance reviews is that they are for the employee to know how they are doing, to give them helpful feedback on what they are doing well and where they need to improve. Today we try to provide this feedback often, throughout the year. I often tell the managers on my teams that there shouldn’t be any surprises in the performance review. It should instead be a summing up of the feedback that the person has been receiving all along.

If we give feedback throughout the review period, why do we need to do the performance review? It is for the company and us almost as much as it is for the person receiving it. Ideally, we maintain a narrative across the year with our feedback, reviewing months of our notes and prior communication before each one-on-one. All too often, the larger arc gets lost in the whirlwind of work. The feedback we give is usually very transactional about what has just occurred. If there are significant overarching discussions, we may be able to tie the feedback to that, but often the narrative gets lost.

The review is a chance to look across all that has transpired over a much lengthier period than the time between one-on-ones. It is a chance for us to take stock and find new patterns or trends that we may have missed. To look at the bigger picture and then build a shared understanding of that picture with the team member.

The review is also for the company because the company keeps a record of employee performance to justify bonuses, promotions, salary increases, and stock offerings. It is also vital to have a history of performance for a new manager if you move on from your role. Sometimes you will move to a new job, or the employee will move to a new team. When that happens, all the shared understanding you have built up is lost unless it’s written down. An employee who has been working years towards a new role may be set back significantly if their new manager doesn’t understand the efforts they have made over time and is looking only at what they see in the present moment.

A well-written review is a valuable document for the person receiving it. First, it is a checkpoint for them to refer to as they work towards their career goals. Second, it is a useful document for you to help them on their career path. Third, it is a favor to their future managers at your company. Finally, it is a critical document for the company and your manager to understand how to manage compensation for the person.

Preparing for the performance review. Start early!

Often writing reviews seems like a great deal of work because we wait until our company’s official “kick-off” of the review period. The people/HR team lets all the managers know the schedule, does a few meetings to discuss/update the process, and opens the forms for managers to enter data. If you wait for that moment to begin preparing your reviews, you may find yourself spending a lot of nights and weekends trying to get your evaluations prepared, since your regular work continues during this time. In the past, I’ve spent more than a few sad weekend days sitting in a ski lodge huddled over my laptop, writing reviews while my family was out on the slopes having fun.

Reviews happen at the same time every year.

Your company may adjust the dates slightly, but you can be confident that reviews will happen around the same time each year. When the dates are announced, you should be prepared. If you are incredibly diligent, you may be collecting and organizing data for your reviews year-round. If you haven’t done that, you can start reviewing, amassing, and organizing supporting data as review time approaches so that you don’t have to struggle and potentially miss things. While the format of the reviews in your company may change periodically, the general things that are measured likely won’t.

There are many sources of data you can assemble for the review.

As I start my preparation, I create a folder on my computer for the review period and a subfolder for each person. In each folder, I assemble all the documents and data for the performance assessment. I prefer to keep local copies because it is less likely that I will accidentally share the folder or file. To focus, I often go offsite to work on reviews, and sometimes these places have sketchy connectivity. Having the documents stored on my computer has functioned well for my process.

My primary data always comes from the notes I take during my one-on-ones and in meetings.

I used to store all my notes in Evernote organized by meeting (for recurring meetings) and tagged with the people in the discussion. This storage approach made it easy to find all my notes for each person to track what we spoke about across the review period. However, during the pandemic, I switched to paper notebooks. Now I keep an index of which pages people appear on. This index makes it easy to find all my notes referencing someone.

As I review my meeting notes, I assemble meaningful comments or things I notice into a new document in the person’s folder to organize my data for the review. I include where I got it from for each item in case I need to go back to the source.

The person’s prior reviews are essential.

I always download copies of any previous reviews for the person in the system and put them in the folder. It is vital to remember our prior review conversations and see any reviews before they reported to me. Reading previous reviews helps me understand the different challenges and strengths they have had and understand their career story at the company so far.

E-mail and slack exchanges may remind you of other events from the year.

Occasionally, things come up and are resolved between one-on-ones or meetings, so they don’t appear in your notes. I scan over the e-mail and Slack exchanges I have had with the person during the review period to see if I missed an event in reviewing my meeting notes.

I copy/paste these exchanges into the notes document in the person’s review folder, or summarize them there.

Make a list of peers of the person from whom you want to request feedback.

Your company may include a formal peer-review element in your performance reviews process. However, if it isn’t part of the company process, you will still find it valuable to ask for peer review feedback. The first step is to list the people you would like to ask for feedback, so you are ready. You may also write the template for the peer feedback request to prepare you to send them out.

I’ve noticed that in companies with a formal peer feedback process as part of their reviews, people quickly become inundated with feedback requests. Your chance of getting valuable (or any) feedback is greatly improved if you send the request early, before people have feedback fatigue.

If you know that peer feedback will not be part of your company’s process, you may still want to send out the feedback requests early to get the responses with enough time to follow up if there are questions. However, make sure that you specify a date by which you would like the feedback returned, and don’t make that date too far in the future, or people will put the request aside and forget about it.

The message template goes into the top-level performance reviews folder, and the list goes into the person’s folder. If you want to be tricky, you can put the list in a CSV file to make it easier for a mail merge. You may generate a lot of e-mail performance feedback requests as part of this process. I’ve automated this over the years.

When you receive the feedback, save a copy of it to the folder.

You may need to ask for a self-evaluation.

If your company does not include self-evaluation as part of the review process, you may ask the people you review to do that for you. If you are unsure what to ask, use your company’s career pathing rubric for their job/level. Ask them to compare themselves to the rubric and give examples of how they have met, exceeded, or missed the expectations. If you use individual goals or OKRs, they should talk about how they achieved or missed them. They should also talk about the areas they want to improve on for the coming review period.

You want them to complete their self-review early enough that you have time to follow up with them or others on anything that comes up in that document. Your company will set the dates for you if it includes self-review as part of the review process.

Save the self-evaluation to the person’s folder.

Review the work output.

A critical part of the performance review is reviewing the actual value the person created for the customers and company. A portion of your performance review as a lead or manager covers what your team achieved. Think through your teams’ accomplishments and think about how this person contributed to or detracted from those projects. Add concrete examples to the notes document.

Look over the person’s commits to the code of the project. Did they review others’ code? Did they contribute helpful comments? Did their code require many fixes? Did they contribute to the project documentation? Look over their comments in your project and bug tracking systems. Did they contribute helpful information? Did they help others?

It can be very tempting to try to be “objective” when looking at work output. Counting lines of code produced, number of commits, number of issues filed or closed, or story points completed might seem like unbiased data. Avoid this temptation at all costs. People have different approaches to knowledge work. Even if your team has strong guidelines on how work should be done, people will always have methods that your seemingly objective process might miss. Instead, focus on the value they contribute to the team and watch in the peer feedback for what they contribute that won’t show up in the source management or issue tracking systems.

Save your observations on their work output in your notes document.

What if the person didn’t report to me for the entire review period?

If the person is a new hire and is still eligible for a performance review, you will use this process, but just for their time in the company. You will have to make allowances for their onboarding and focus more on how they learn to contribute than on their actual contributions.

If you are a new manager to an existing team, spend as much time as you can with the prior manager to understand how they have approached each person’s development. Read the reviews for each person before talking to the manager. If the manager has left the company, you can still reach out to them. Hopefully, they will still want the best for their old team. Depending on how long you were in the team during the review period, you may need to emphasize the peer review component more than you would have otherwise. Be aware that changing a team’s manager is very disruptive to the team. You will only have seen the results of that disruption and how the team now works.

If the person joined the team from a different group in the company, consider doing a joint review with their prior manager to cover their work before joining your team. If that doesn’t seem necessary, you should still have an extended conversation with their former manager after going over the person’s previous reviews.

This process seems like a lot of work!

It is! It should be. It is important stuff. Think about the best reviews you have received from your current or former managers. Not just the performance reviews that were the most positive, but the ones that made you feel like your manager cared about your development. A good review inspires you with the knowledge that your manager and the company recognize the worthy work you’ve done. You know that your areas of improvement have been considered and are essential for your career development.

A good review requires good data. Therefore, it is incumbent on you to make sure you are going over as much as you can, not just what you can remember at the end of the review period (also known as recency bias).

The first time you go through this process, it will take a great deal of effort, but the payoff will be worth it. For the next period, you will learn to collect and organize this data as you go. If you assemble and categorize data all the time, it will be helpful in your one-to-ones as well and not just at performance review time.

Now you have the data. What next?

Now that you have assembled your data, you can evaluate the data against the expectations of the role and level. I will discuss that in the next part of this four-part series.

Thanks to Laura Blackwell for editing assistance