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Performance Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Everyone Wants Formal Feedback, But Few Companies Do It Well.

By Steve Schumacher

I have done reviews, I have been reviewed, and I have designed review processes. In my 25 years of experience with them, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of performance reviews: the bad ones and the worse ones.

My first two experiences with performance reviews set the tone for my future experiences.

As a freshly minted MBA graduate in my first job, I didn’t know much about performance feedback and how it should be done. I was simply trying to get ahead and do the best I could.

After being with my first employer for a year, my boss called me in and said he had a performance review form that he was supposed to fill out on me. He also told me that it was six months overdue and asked if I minded if he back-dated it. I said sure, go ahead. In hindsight, he was clearly just trying to keep himself out of hot water with Human Resources.

My second experience, about a year later, was with another boss. He called me into his office when it was review time and pretty much dumped all of his negative feedback on me at one time. He never gave me any feedback throughout the year. It was all news to me. In fact, I thought I was doing a good job for him.

He was a product of the system and felt the only time he could sit down and talk to me about how I was doing was when the performance review system spit out the form telling him it was time to tell me how lousy I was.

Because of those two events, I went in search of a better way to manage people, and more specifically, give them feedback on how they are doing. The following are some tips I have learned over the years:

NEVER let Human Resources develop a process by themselves.
Too often, HR folks work in a vacuum and are out of touch with operations people. They will build a review form and put it out to all employees with little training in the process and no buy-in. It’s set up for failure right from the start.

Take the time to ask for employee input on what they would like feedback on, how and how often. Then let the HR professionals build the process based on that input.

Rate employees based on expectations.
Typical performance review forms ask the manager to rate employees using numbers or words like exceptional, acceptable, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, etc. Managers often are then told “nobody is a 5.” Instead of using big words and/or numbers to define performance, simply use expectations – meets, exceeds or does not meet. Of course, expectations must be clear from the outset. The advantage of using expectations is it allows the manager to rate new employees and veteran employees fairly.

Have a midyear review.
Business conditions change. Objectives may need to change also. It is not fair to hold someone accountable for performance that is no longer reasonable six months after the objectives were set. Sit down with your employees midyear and see how things are going.

Go over each objective and see if everything is still on track. Adjust targets, eliminate some objectives, add others if necessary.

Ask your employees if they are getting enough support from you or other staff members. Add any additional training that they may need.

Give feedback all year long.
Don’t store up your feedback for the year-end review. Give positive and corrective feedback all year long. When you see it, say it! Keep notes in a file on what they’ve done well and where they’ve fallen short. These specifics will come in handy at year-end. Don’t trust your memory when it comes to performance feedback.

Have employees do a self-review.
Prior to the formal face-to-face meeting, have your employees evaluate how they have done. This will give you some insight into how they define good performance, and will give you a good basis for discussion. Keep in mind, most employees will be more critical of their own performance than you will be.

No surprises!
The end-of-year performance review should be nothing new. It should be a summary of discussions you have had with your employee all year long. It’s simply formalizing what you’ve told them already.

Performance reviews produce a lot of anxiety for both the manager and the employee. We all like to get feedback, but being rated and evaluated is difficult.

If you are good about setting solid objectives at the beginning of the year and give positive and corrective feedback when it happens, the formal process at year-end will be much easier.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..