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Deliver effective annual reviews

annual reviews

What most annual reviews feel like

Annual Reviews

Annual reviews are dreaded by everyone. I have never heard of a manager who looked forward to Annual Review time. I haven’t heard of an individual contributor who couldn’t wait for their review. At a high level, “I get it”. There are plenty of reasons why managers don’t like reviews:

  • How many managers have actually been shown HOW to write annual reviews?
  • Have 4 or 5 reports, this could easily be a full day project or more. 10 plus reports? Check.
  • Work for a large corporation lets not get started on the red tape. Every year, the process changes a little bit so there is new training on the same dirty topic.
  • You may have to wait for feedback on your review of an employee from your manager or HR.
  • Did I forget all the regular work that is getting piled up while you work on reviews?

The very folks you are reviewing feel a lot of anxiety about the process. Very rarely is this a win for both manager and individual contributor.

  • Because of their nature, the top performers usually feel like they haven’t done enough, or aren’t going to “get enough”.
  • No one wants to put into writing the performance of a low performer, and no one wants to hear about it.

The cherry in this situation: where most folks should be happy to have a job, for a lot of companies, the most you can give your top performer is a 2-3 percent increase. How do you tell a top performer that they will get 3 percent more than the lowest performer who will get a zero percent increase and probably not ever lose their job?

I just posted why I think the review process is valuable from the individual contributor’s perspective. I wrote about how this is the individual contributor’s career, not the managers, so everyone needs to recognize responsibility is distributed. But with training and development being cut in this economy, there may be managers who have never had any instruction on how to give a review. There are plenty of ways, plenty of styles. Below are a few thoughts.

In the past, the annual reviews set up the expectation of the yearly raise. Today’s review should be centered on achievements and improvements made to performance. Feedback vs criticism.

Easy ways to document your team’s accomplishments for annual reviews:

Create an electronic folder for every individual on the team. Every notable instance around individual members of the team, get or create documentation on that event and drag it to that folder. These are for your records, not for HR.  One more time, NOT FOR HR. Email or a word document, make a record.

DOCUMENT: Throughout the year, when an employee does something noteworthy, take 3 minutes to document and file the event. If other folks were involved, ask them to send you something on the performance of that particular employee. Manager praise always sounds good coming from you, but they have an additional dimension of credibility when you reference written documentation from someone else.

EVANGELIZE the efforts. Take that documentation email and send it to your manager adding how much you appreciate the employee’s efforts. When your manager responds to your email, file that email in your private stash. This is the material you are going to use in the review. How much is your direct report going to appreciate you when you not only have documentation of the accomplishment but have proof that you shared the accomplishment with the department head?  Instant loyalty!

Another way to gain credibility is to ask YOUR manager to send an email of appreciation directly to your team member. If your manager isn’t familiar with the situation, ghostwrites a draft that your manager can edit and send. Make it easy for your manager. Help them help you Foolios!

When it comes time to do the review, pull your file, then copy and paste specific bullets from the electronic file into the review document. The employee will realize that you have been paying attention when you draw on not just 2 or 3 more notable examples of work, but 10-12 that even they forgot about. There will be a lot of material and the employee will be impressed.

EG:  January 17, 2011: “Johnny Badass created a new workflow that cut out 3 major steps from the current workflow. What I as Johnny’s manager appreciate is that this is a clear indication that Johnny is looking out for the department, always looking for ways to improve. (I think the last sentence that adds some personalization to the instance is what is going to make the difference. Who wouldn’t want to hear this?)

Department Head Ivory Tower Manager commented, “Johnny Badass, really appreciated your initiative in our workflow process. We have had 3 folks in your position and they all just assumed “we have always done it this way”. Your initiative saves us time and money, both important to the bottom line, especially in this economy”.

When it comes to documenting areas for improvement, one way to coach:

When a mistake is made, ask a senior person on the team who is aware of the mistake to approach the employee as a friend and offer advice to document what went wrong, what will be done next time, and what was learned. The newbie should send this to you via email. When the employee that made the mistake emails this confession and lesson learned – to you as their manager, send it to YOUR manager, explaining how proactive the employee was and how you are confident they learned the lesson. Lather, rinse, and repeat per the above and send the documentation to YOUR managers – manager, making it a point to recognize responsibility taken.

Add this to your annual reviews and explain how you and the leaders of the department are impressed with the fix, the new process, the learning, etc. The mistake is covered, but in a very positive way and we are reinforcing how we want mistakes handled in the future. What could have been a very awkward situation can become a positive. As a manager, we NEED to expect everyone to make a mistake. Great managers will coach the moves made AFTER the mistake.

Making a habit of collecting these instances throughout the year will not only make the annual reviews faster and easier. I guarantee that the employee will walk away feeling that you gave a damn. This kind of documentation will be better than 90% of the reviews they received in the past.   This type of review makes it easier to realize that they are on a path to bigger and better.

This isn’t going to work for everyone.  We all have employees that are just tough situations, but if you can use this for 3 out of 4 of your team members, or 8 out of 10, your credibility as a manager will increase, and your annual reviews will be much easier.

When you present a stack of reviews to YOUR manager that is thorough, filled with documented examples, and includes their own comments, trust me, you will also gain cred.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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