The Performance Review Meeting

Learn how to lead the performance review meeting effectively by allowing the employees to process and discuss their review openly.

It’s time. Your employee shows up, anxious, nervous, stressed, excited, filled with equal parts energy and dread, and they’re looking across the table (figuratively or literally) at you, waiting for you to pronounce their fate.

No pressure, right?

First things first: Tell everybody in the room (your employee and yourself, both) to take a deep breath. If you’ve done your homework, and you’ve been communicating for the past cycle what your concerns have been, along with your praise and encouragement, then there should be no surprises here, and you can say as much. As a matter of fact, that’s how I prefer to open my formal performance reviews: “Hey, Joshua. As you know, I am a firm believer of the idea that a performance review should never be a surprise, so I think most of what we will be talking about today will be material we’ve talked about before. Ready to go?” Most of the employee’s nervous energy will be from the ambiguity—and outright fear—of anticipating a surprise kick to the teeth, so opening with a “There will be no surprises here” will generally calm them down. Remind them (and yourself) that this is intended as a partnership between you, and the goal of this meeting is to do everything we can to get the employee to be the best they can be.

Point out that you are obligated (you don’t need to say by whom) to take notes during the meeting. Use pen and paper—now is not the time to let a computer screen get between you and them. If the review is over a video conference meeting, I’d still suggest pen and paper; the physical feedback of seeing your head go down to make a note makes it clear when you are taking a note, while if you’re typing on the screen they can’t really tell if you’re writing notes or responding to a chat message or working on your resume.

Next, it’s time to go over the written review. If you can, deliver it to them about an hour before the meeting (unless you have specific reasons not to), so they have time to review it privately and form questions or concerns. Because some negative reviews will be taken very poorly if delivered over email, and the company doesn’t want reviews to be procedurally handled differently based on whether they are positive or negative, some HR processes explicitly forbid doing this.

If you can’t hand it out ahead of time (and in truth, I prefer not to), then at this point in the meeting give them the written review and then give them time to read through it. Don’t interrupt. It’s always awkward to sit in silence and wait while somebody reads something, but resist the urge to talk, point things out, or make comments—this meeting isn’t about you, it’s about them, and you need to step back off the stage while they read and process what’s there. Let them tell you when they’re done. And don’t fire up the email client while they read—your job is to be attentive to their reactions and responses. Now is not the time to be multitasking, now is the time to be 100% focused on your employee.

If this isn’t the first time you’ve done a review with your employee, you may find they don’t need to read it all, or prefer to walk through it with you. I’ve found that if we’ve done reviews before, they’ll skim it for a few minutes before being ready to discuss. If it’s a video conference meeting, and I have to “share screen” to show it to them, we’ll often choose to walk through it step-by-step, but either way, be open to however your employee wants to consume it, particularly if this is the first time they’ve seen it.

However it’s done, once they’ve received the written review, it’s time to “begin at the beginning.”

Working from your meeting prep, go through each point you want to discuss, pointing out the relevant section of the written review and citing your examples that exemplify the point in question. Discuss how this meets (or doesn’t) the expectations that were set back at the start of the cycle. Check in with the employee to see if they can see how the examples do (or don’t) meet the expectations, particularly for those situations where the examples fall short of expectations. Practice your active listening, periodically echoing back what you believe you are hearing: “Joshua, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the reason your code is constantly not meeting our quality bar is because you’re being held to time estimates that you weren’t a part of establishing, is that right?” If that’s not what they’re saying, ask for clarification—this is not the time to be operating off of assumptions.

By the way, don’t feel constrained to the written evaluation as the strict order of discussion–if the conversation feels like it’s wandering over into a different point, feel free to follow it into that topic. This is where being clear in your own head what the most important topics are is vital: If the employee wants to spend time talking about code formatting standards, rather than the fact that their code is not up to quality, you need to pause that conversation and focus on the performance review: “Joshua, I hear that you disagree with the formatting standards. We can take that up at a different time, but for now, we need to focus on your performance, and I want to make sure we have time to go over a few other things as well.” It’s your job to keep the meeting focused on performance.

The positive points generally don’t require much coaching—the mechanism by which we point out a success and offer praise to somebody for the success is pretty innate in all of us. If you can, go into the next-order benefits of the win: “Rachel, I heard from the VP of Enterprise Sales that your API documentation really helped sell a major client on the professionalism and quality of our API, and that helped closed a major partnership agreement.”

Negative review points are a slightly different story. Again, they shouldn’t be a surprise, because you’ve been giving your employee feedback all along the way, but you still need to make sure the message has been heard clearly. As you go through each of the points, consider this three step template:

  • State your concern. Be precise. “Your code is not up to our quality standard.”
  • Follow with examples. “Over the last quarter you’ve taken on 37 stories, and when we look in the bug tracker, 23 of those later yielded at least three bugs each. The other 14 each had at least one bug—not one story you worked on this quarter came through bug-free. That’s not an acceptable level of quality.”
  • Close by requesting their reaction. Do they see the problem? Do they recognize why it’s a problem? “I need you to spend more time per story making sure you are thinking about possible edge cases and writing those into the unit tests. That’s a necessary part of being a professional software developer at this company.”

Let’s be clear: This is not going to be fun for your employee. If this employee has a few years under their belt, they may be expecting the traditional “sandwich” technique described earlier, which then allows them to selectively focus on the few positive comments and brush off the negative. In fact, if they’ve previously been given positive reviews by other managers, they may retreat to that, implicitly claiming that you’re “too hard” or “expecting too much”—which is why the expectations you set at the start of the cycle need to be objective, and why getting their buy-in on the objectives at the start of the cycle is important, as it nullifies any argument that they might have about your “harsh evaluation.” You might even suggest that their previous managers didn’t do them any favors by not working to correct their poor performance earlier. However, don’t dwell on that (and possibly don’t even bring it up), because the emphasis is on this cycle’s performance, not the previous cycle’s or the one before that.

This is not going to be fun for you, either! Most of us dislike confrontations, and this is about as confrontational as you can get in a workplace—and it can very quickly spiral out of control if you let it. Remember, the emphasis is on the performance, not the person. The goal is to give them the feedback they need to get better. You are looking to embrace an opportunity to deliver and discuss meaningful criticism, because they deserve an honest assessment. (Recall for them that in the fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor doesn’t stop embarrassing himself until the small child points out his embarrassing state.)

Keep in mind, many poor performers honestly believe their work has been satisfactory, and will be surprised at your assessment. Get them past the self-recrimination phase, point out that now that they have the information they can get better, and that the next cycle is the opportunity to do so. (If they choose to not react the same way, perhaps it’s time to consider a more drastic step.)

Work to end the meeting on a positive note. If this is a primarily positive review, make that clear. If this is a primarily negative review, make it clear that this isn’t about “punishing” them for poor performance, but that this meeting is an opportunity to start fresh and improve and get back on track. Make it crystal clear that you are a coach, not a critic, and that anything you’ve said during this meeting is in the spirit of helping them achieve the goals that they want to achieve.

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