Reimagning the Employee Performance Review

I need to make a confession about performance reviews: I hate them. I have colleagues in HR who see them as a necessary evil and some who even find them valuable. As for all the supervisors I have worked with during my HR career, I have never heard a single one get excited about having to write reviews, and I have rarely ever met an employee who looks forward to getting a review.

When most of us really don’t like the traditional performance review, why do we stick with the old system? It is time to reimagine the performance review.

Why Performance Reviews Aren’t Effective

As an employee, I found the whole performance review process stressful. I’m sure most everyone can relate to this feeling. Whenever the time of year would arrive for my last boss to schedule a performance review meeting, I would get butterflies in my stomach and lose sleep thinking about all the horrible things she would bring up about my performance during the last 12 months.

Of course, I would go to the meeting and find that my fears were completely unfounded. Plus, if I had thought about it, my boss gave me feedback throughout the year, so she had really already given me a preview of what would be included in my review.

My anxiety with performance reviews comes from the idea that an entire year’s worth of work could be distilled down to a few pages and an hour-long meeting. A manager scores performance in areas like teamwork, job knowledge and productivity. Performance for the whole year is summed up in a number and sometimes just a sentence or two to support that number. This does not seem like a very good representation of 12 months of work.

Accuracy Problems with Performance Reviews

Not only does the traditional performance review seem to be a limited method for conveying a whole year’s worth of feedback, it is not always accurate. Managers are sometimes afraid to give honest feedback and avoid scoring people low because they fear having a difficult conversation with an employee about their poor performance. Some managers may be harsher than others. If your company bases raises on performance review scores, this could disadvantage employees who work for such a manager. It is nearly impossible to make sure all managers are using the same standards for scoring employees.

When a poor performer gets a good review, it makes discipline and termination a challenge. The employee may say, “I don’t understand. All my reviews have been good.”

Managers may also feel rushed to get a stack of reviews done in a short period of time; therefore, they do not always put the energy into writing an accurate review. A single review may take an hour or two to write, and most managers have a lot of demands on their time that make a list of reviews a huge burden.

Taking a Different Approach to Performance Reviews

Defenders of the traditional review say it is a good way to document performance. It can also be used to justify employment decisions such as promotion or termination. This is great in theory, but, as I mentioned before, this is rarely what happens in practice. Reviews can be inaccurate, and they are not always the most effective way of delivering feedback. Instead of an annual document, consider having ongoing documentation of performance.

A good manager should be providing feedback on a regular basis. Let employees know when they are doing a good job immediately. If an employee successfully completes a project in January, do not wait until a performance review in October to document that success. Keep a feedback log and make a quick note whenever an employee does well or if you have to coach the employee on performance issues. Make performance documentation an ongoing process rather than a once-per-year thing.

When an employee continues to have performance issues, address them through corrective action, which includes coaching, warnings and possible termination. Issuing warnings for continued problems and serious violations will give you the documentation you need if you have to make the decision about whether or not to terminate someone. It can still be hard to discuss performance problems, but addressing one problem at a time through corrective action can be easier than trying to deliver a review that details every performance issue in the span of a year.

Giving ongoing feedback takes away the stress managers feel about writing a stack of reviews, and it also alleviates the anxiety employees feel about receiving reviews. Ongoing feedback also acknowledges that our work performance is constantly evolving.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

Reader Interactions


  1. Lolly says

    The inefficiency of traditional performance reviews was one of the main reasons TalentCove was founded. We also believe that feedback should be given to employees on a regular basis and that a feedback log, of sorts, should be kept. Not only will this help squash problems that arise much quicker, it can also help motivate employees to continue producing good work.

    Great article, Stephanie!



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