Blog Post

How to Give an Effective Performance Review—In Person or Virtually

Feeling on edge about an upcoming performance review? Follow this advice.

Meredith Castin
5 min read
October 27, 2020
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Whether you’re a first-time manager, or you’ve been in leadership roles for years, it’s natural to feel nervous about giving performance reviews. After all, you want to give honest performance feedback to your employees, but you don’t want to go to extremes and wind up demoralizing them or minimizing serious problems that need to be resolved. With the pandemic changing workplace dynamics and causing extra daily stress, it’s natural to feel even more on edge about evaluating your direct reports. That’s why we put together this guide to giving effective performance reviews, whether you’re doing so in person or online. 

Plan ahead.

You can take a lot of the stress out of performance evaluations by planning ahead. Take a look at when employee reviews are due. Do all reviews occur within the same timeframe each year? Or, do you review employees on the anniversary of their respective hire dates? What type of paperwork do you need to complete in conjunction with each evaluation? Which forms do your employees need to fill out in advance? 

Be sure to give your employees plenty of notice, too. As we’ll discuss shortly, effective performance reviews should feel like conversations. To that end, you’ll want to give your employees time to put together their own materials so they can have honest discussions with you.

Virtual tip: If you’re planning to hold virtual performance evaluations, be sure to send several reminders to your employees before their scheduled dates. Most chat platforms allow you to set reminders automatically.

Keep things discreet.

The worst thing you can do during a sensitive conversation is to invite interruptions and eavesdropping. If you have to talk to an employee about subpar performance, you don’t want to make the situation worse by feeding into the rumor mill. Laura DuBois, MSPT, is the CEO of H.E.A.D. Coaching Services, LLC, a certified life and health coach, and a former outpatient clinic manager. She advises: “A performance review is a once-a-year event, so give it (and the person!) the respect and reverence this occasion deserves.” Be sure you set up a discreet location where interruptions cannot occur. After all, adds DuBois, “A discreet location is important for comfortable and candid expression.”

Virtual tip: Find a private room—one where you can close the door—with minimal echoing and effective lighting. Ensure that you’re free from interruptions and that your employees are aware that you are keeping things private on your end.

Start with small talk.

If at all possible, try to kick off the conversation with a little small talk. Chances are, your employees are even more nervous than you are. They may be worried about their job security—or that they’ve let you down. Assuage their fears by building in a few minutes of time to show that you care about them personally. Ask about their lives. How are their parents or children? Are they getting settled in their new home? How are they coping during a tough year? By showing that you see your employees as people—not just billing machines—you will help put everyone at ease and set the stage for a pleasant evaluation.

Virtual tip: Maintaining eye contact is key. “If the review is given virtually, looking into the camera lens is important, as well as allowing for time in between speaking so you aren’t talking over one another,” DuBois says.

Put your employees at ease.

We already mentioned using small talk to put your employees at ease, but there are many other ways you can take some of the tension out of this experience. First of all, if you’re holding your performance reviews in person during the pandemic, wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Don’t make your employees even more nervous by refusing to wear a mask when you’re shut in a small space together for an extended period. Show your employees that you respect their safety, and be prepared to offer spare masks, hand sanitizer, tissues, a wastebasket, and anything else that they might need during this experience.

Virtual tip: Sit in an environment with relaxing imagery. Consider hanging a calming picture in the background or using a soft lighting source instead of a harsh, bright one.

Pay attention to non-verbal communication.

DuBois points out that non-verbal communication can play a huge role in letting your employees know that you value them, their time, their contributions to the team, and their input during reviews. If you’re sitting across a huge, empty desk—crossing your arms and leaning back in your seat—you project a very different message than you would by sitting together with your employee (observing appropriate social distancing, of course), placing your hands palms-up on your lap, and leaning slightly forward. The former says you’re closed off, while the latter says you’re open to a candid and friendly conversation. Keep in mind that when you’re wearing a mask, it can be tough for your employees to gauge your facial expressions. Put them at ease by saying something like, “I’m smiling under here!” You can also nod, give the “thumbs up” signal, “smile with your eyes,” and use all sorts of other body language to make the interaction more comfortable for all parties. 

Virtual tip: Try to sit fairly close to your computer’s camera, so you can nod, smile, and use facial expressions to convey your support while your employees are speaking. 

Make it a discussion.

As with job interviews, performance reviews are more useful when they’re conversational versus one-sided. When DuBois was a clinic manager, she was surprised how few people came to their performance reviews without doing any self-assessments to prepare. “I viewed it as a huge missed opportunity for both sides,” she explains. Having been on the receiving end of performance reviews, DuBois says, “The most effective performance reviews for me have always included two-way discussions, where self-assessments were an integral part of the process.”

Encourage your employees to come to these meetings prepared so you can compare notes and have frank discussions. DuBois recommends using employees’ own self-assessments as guideposts, which you can then cross reference with your own rubric. “There’s a much different (better!) flavor to being an active partner versus sitting there while the reviewer reads off a bunch of metrics that you did or did not meet,” she explains.

Virtual tip: Before the review, remind your employees that you’ll be using a discussion format. Encourage them to either fill out the same rubric you use, or to write up a page or two assessing their own overall performance—including where they felt they excelled, where they fell short, and what they’d like to accomplish in the next year.

Diverge from cold, hard statistics.

Speaking of rubrics: Anyone who has been evaluated based purely on a numeric scale can attest to how demoralizing it can be. A one-to-five scale—where most employees get scored a paltry three for doing an excellent job—can feel incredibly disappointing to employees who thrive on achievement. Even when you explain that most high-performing employees do score threes, there’s just something about getting ranked “average” that makes employees feel reduced to cogs in a machine. 

Take time before the performance review to think about what each employee’s superpower might be. For example, does a particular employee’s sunny personality help that person build team camaraderie? That may not be a factor on your performance evaluation scale, and if it goes unrecognized, it could leave the employee feeling unappreciated and disregarded by management. If you can leverage performance reviews as an opportunity to discuss the assets that make each person on your team uniquely valuable, you’ll inspire your employees to rise to their full potential in the future.

Virtual tip: Those long, drawn out scales can be hard to see if you’re holding printouts up to the camera. Consider using a screen-share tool so your employees can follow along with what you’re saying.

Look to the future.

We all have a habit of judging people on past behavior. While that’s understandable, your employees should be given an opportunity for a clean slate after each review—within reason, of course. You can use performance evaluations to define what motivates your employees. What are their career goals? Do they want to stay in clinical care, or are they interested in moving into a non-clinical job within your organization? 

Once you know what motivates your team, you can set individual goals for each employee accordingly. You might find that you have a protégé on your hands who is just itching to dive into the budget forecasting that you dread each month. You never know unless you ask—and asking demonstrates your commitment to growing your employees with the company.

Virtual tip: To avoid putting your employees on the spot in the already-strange environment of a virtual evaluation, consider having them fill out career goals worksheets in advance of the conversation. Whether you collect the sheets before or after the actual review, having these goals written out will help you collaboratively set goals for the upcoming year.

When in doubt, use the sandwich method.

Looking to the future is a lot easier when you have a team of motivated, hard-working, optimistic employees. But what if you have an underperformer on your hands? “Being the deliverer of news that someone hasn’t ‘met the mark’ is awkward for both parties,” says DuBois. She suggests using a popular approach—often called “the sandwich method—to couch negative feedback within more positive commentary.

DuBois recommends first sharing what the employee has done well and how it has positively impacted the company and team. Then, tackle the areas that are ripe for improvement. Lastly, wrap up the evaluation with a quick nod to the employee’s strengths. She notes that this format diminishes the tendency for employees to become defensive, which can stand in the way of making headway toward real solutions. Of course, don’t minimize the constructive criticism so much that your employee mistakenly believes there’s no room for improvement!

Virtual tip: Online meetings introduce complications like audio delays and screen freezes, which can impede clear communication. If you send your employees an agenda in advance of their evaluations—complete with notes of where they can share their wins, struggles, and goals with you—you can help eliminate points of awkwardness as you move through your side of the evaluation.

Have you received an effective performance evaluation? Given a great one? Given a terrible one? We want to hear your stories! Please leave your thoughts, experiences, and comments below.


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