Last-minute Performance Review crutches

I can confidently say that managers are always calm, prepared, and ready for every task.  We’re skilled multitaskers, and never get blindsided by a problem that sucks away all our time and energy and leaves us rushing to complete something vital (like a performance appraisal).

Yeah, right.

This post explains some simple crutches for harried managers working on reviews.  These tips are not a substitute for a year-long investment in the performance of your team, and they aren’t even necessarily best practices, but maybe they’ll help make life a little easier this month.

(These assume your reviews contain two main sections: a list of accomplishments, and a list of competencies the employees use as strengths or need to better utilize going forward.)

Get some reference materials

Any reference material can be used as a crutch.  The goal here is to refresh your memory in some kind of standardized way. My two crutches this year were unofficial spreadsheets.  One is a chart with one axis having all the competencies (communication skills, technical expertise, command of the business, etc.), and the other with the job levels (associate vs. senior engineer, etc.)  The items on the chart are descriptions of how someone at that level would use that competency.  An Associate Engineer and a Principal Engineer both use their communication skills, but their scope is so different that it can be hard to see how they relate.  Having some objective descriptors of expected behavior can help.

The second was a worksheet with a tab for each team member, and competencies listed for each. Within each competency are 5 descriptive lines taken from the official descriptions. I used this worksheet to start my brainstorming on which competencies define which individuals — after reviewing the first chart, I used this one to assign a strength rating to each descriptive line, for each team member.  In the end I could see what my gut reaction was to each person on the team.  What strengths defined them, what areas weren’t they as strong in?

However you do it, there’s value in having definitions to force you to think objectively.  Now, I like to write down my initial gut feelings for each team member in terms of strengths and development opportunities, along with just a sentence or two explaining why.  Nothing set in stone yet, no connections to previous years or hard data, but I’ve made some progress on everybody’s review.

Consulting the “what”

Now it’s time to revisit what your team did, not just how they did it.  If you have a year-long crutch for this (like a status spreadsheet, an email folder, etc.), great, but some of us aren’t so disciplined.  Other ways to get the “what” ball rolling?  I consult quarterly goals, saved meeting minutes, meeting invites, and old emails.  There’s time involved in all those steps, and you should decide which ones fit your work style best.

Finally, it’s time for the next big crutch: self-appraisals.  Read only their accomplishments and not their competencies (advanced self-appraisal tip: if you know your manager does this, try and make sure you talk a little about your strengths in your accomplishment section!).  This suggestion is somewhat controversial — lots of people will suggest leaving the SA until your PA is completely written, but we’re talking about crutches here, not the ideal process.

You should be able to pull enough together from these crutches to break down each team member’s contributions now. Be consistent across the team, in terms of categorization and detail.  Do not copy and paste! It’s important that this section reflects your knowledge of each team member’s contribution and reflects some unique perspective.

Yes, this is real work.  It takes time. I promised crutches, not shortcuts.

Once you’re done here, it’s a good idea to go back and polish your rough competency thoughts.  Add some detail, clean up inconsistencies, and so on.  If you followed that work flow, you’ve got a rough draft of the review based on objective data and your recollections.

Check your work

We’re back to the crutches.  One employee at a time, open up the previous year’s review and the self-appraisal.  Read over the competency sections in detail.  Look out for glaring issues in your reviews. Did you miss a strength someone called out? Maybe you need to revisit. Be consistent year over year; find ways to talk about the things you said last year, and talk about how people improved (or didn’t!).

While you’re doing this, look for major gaps between self-appraisals and your reviews. What are people’s blind spots with regards to their performance? Add some language to clarify these areas, to help prepare for the actual sit-down review meeting.

Reread each review in turn, correct any typographical errors or sloppy grammar, and you’re off to the races.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of performance reviews. There’s lots to talk about in terms of remaining objective, dealing with matrix management situations, why sometimes a good review is a harder review to write than a bad one, and more.  But I wanted to get some concrete tips out there, little crutches to help people who might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Last but not least, I’d like to suggest one thing.  If you make it out of the review process alive, try to note one thing which you’ll improve on next year.  After all, we all get reviewed too, and it would be nice to be able to show how we learned something :).

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Peter Quirk on 02.02.09 at 9:46 am


I understand why one has to review against the competencies chosen by HR, but they are always backward-looking.

I’d really like to reward people for developing new competencies like using social media long before before they were listed as competencies by HR, or changing corporate culture rather than just understanding it.

In your group, rewarding someone for developing a virtual meeting culture that works, or a virtual co-debugging system would drive competitive advantage instead of focusing on the development of a standard individual.