It’s almost here again – that often-dreaded time of year when many firms evaluate employee performance and give formal reviews. And both managers and staff can approach the process with apprehension.

Supervisors may worry about giving criticism while employees fear what they might hear during these discussions. Yet, when handled correctly, appraisals can be a positive experience that’s both productive and motivating.

Here are seven ways you can get more out of the performance reviews you give:

1) Avoid surprises. Try to meet with each member of your team more than once a year. If employees have been told your expectations and whether they’re meeting them throughout the evaluation period – not just at the end of it – there is less fear of the unknown when review time arrives. Keep in mind that it’s just as important to tell people immediately when they’re doing a great job as it is to share improvements they need to make. If you wait until formal appraisals, they may wonder why you withheld praise for so long.    

2) Gather input from others. Even if yours is a small company and you believe you have a solid understanding of how your employees are performing, it’s valuable to seek feedback from others. Coworkers, clients, staff from other departments and subordinates may offer unique insights into the quality of someone’s work. For instance, you might discover that an employee not only excels in her own job but also takes the time to assume additional responsibilities to help colleagues. The comments you receive can point to strengths and weaknesses you didn’t recognize in your own evaluation.

3) Be consistent. If your firm doesn’t already use formal templates for documenting performance appraisals, you’ll need to develop criteria that include the same general factors for all staff (with slight variations depending on the role). This will help eliminate any claims of inequality or bias in the process. Aptitudes to assess include:

  • Competency – Rate how well the person can perform basic job duties.
  • Soft skills – Does the individual communicate effectively both verbally and in writing?
  • Teamwork – Evaluate the way the person interacts with others in the organisation. Does the employee get along with coworkers and volunteer to assist them when they need help?
  • Initiative – Consider whether every assignment comes from you or whether the individual recognizes a need and fills it. Also think about participation during meetings and brainstorming sessions. Does the employee recommend ideas?
  • Ethics – How well does the person abide by company policies and make decisions in the face of ethical quandaries?

4. Handle criticism with tact. The most awkward part of performance reviews for most supervisors is telling people that aspects of their work are sub-standard. As uncomfortable as this can be, don’t try to pull your punches too much by giving vague feedback. This is not helpful for you or the employee. Telling someone he’s “not always using his time as productively as possible but that you know he’ll work harder in 2011” leaves plenty of questions: How exactly is he off-track? What does “work harder” mean? Are there steps you expect him to take to improve?

A better approach might be: “Although your work is generally good, you don’t always use your time wisely. When the XYZ Report was due, I noticed you were busy updating less urgent spreadsheets. You’ve also missed a couple of critical deadlines this year. I’d like for you to complete a time management course in the first quarter to help improve.” You can still be encouraging by noting how confident you are that the person will be successful making the necessary changes.

5. Listen as well as talk. Make sure you allow enough time in the meeting for your staff to actively participate in the discussion. Your goal is to share your feedback but also to learn your employees’ perspective, so listen to what they have to say. You may learn more about why a person didn’t meet expectations with a specific task and receive ideas on ways she can improve in the future.

6. Look ahead. Use the appraisal meeting not just to reflect upon past performance but also to establish future objectives. Push employees to challenge their skills and potential, but also be realistic. Telling someone who has a fear of public speaking to take a course on the subject and then give a major presentation afterward is more likely to cause anxiety than inspiration. You want to give stretch goals but also provide sufficient support for the individual to actually achieve those goals.

7. Talk about compensation another time. It seems to make sense to discuss pay raises and bonuses during performance reviews, right? After all, you’re likely tying the compensation adjustment to how well an employee has met expectations. This can be a mistake, however. If people know they’re going to learn about a pay adjustment, they may not focus sufficiently on the appraisal discussion.

Another reason not to broach the salary issue is that an employee’s feedback may also cause you to reconsider your compensation plans. For instance, you may realize someone played more of a role in attracting a major new client than you thought – or conversely, less of a role. Holding a separate follow-up discussion about pay allows you to take in the full picture before disclosing changes.

Finally, make sure you’re taking advantage of this opportunity to find out how you can improve as a manager. Ask if there’s anything you can do to bolster an employee’s job satisfaction. Solicit input on broader issues, too, such as changes that might benefit the entire team. Handled properly, the performance evaluation can be a win-win that helps both you and your staff become more effective on the job.

About Robert Half International

Founded in 1948, Robert Half International, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm, is a recognized leader in professional staffing services. The company’s specialized staffing divisions include Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources, for temporary, full-time and senior-level project professionals, respectively, in the fields of accounting and finance; OfficeTeam, for highly skilled temporary administrative support personnel; Robert Half Technology, for information technology professionals; Robert Half Legal, for legal personnel; and The Creative Group, for advertising, marketing and web design professionals. Robert Half International has staffing and consulting operations in more than 400 locations worldwide. Find more information at http://www.roberthalf.com/, and follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/accountemps, www.twitter.com/roberthalffa and www.twitter.com/roberthalfmr.