There are two things that have really surprised me in my years in “management”
1. How few people give their employees real feedback on a regular and formal basis
2. How much employees crave this information, whether positive or negative
So my message to you if you work in a position where you have people reporting to you – don’t sweep feedback under the rug – even if it’s negative. Employees will always appreciate honest and constructive criticism over nothing. So here’s some guidelines for you if you’re currently on the “less than annual” plan
Where to Start?
It’s pretty tough to review somebody and judge the quality of their work if you haven’t given them any guidelines for what you expect up front. So start there. You don’t have to over do it and make this some big complicated process thing. I hate process. I suck at it. But I think I’m pretty good at feedback. You can start with just a bullet point list with a list of functions that you expect the person reporting to you to complete or manage depending on their seniority. Sit down for 30 minutes and say, “I’d like to walk you through a high-level list of the things I expect from you on this job. I reserve the right to add to this over time and will probably do so verbally. If there’s anything you would expect to be part of your job function that’s not listed please let me know and we’ll add it if it’s agreed.”
When I worked in consulting we did reviews at the end of every project and at a minimum we did quarterly reviews. I find this to be too much overhead for most startups. My view is that you get one formal review per year and one informal sit down at the midway point. If I give each of my direct reports one honest, thorough, well written review every year I’m doing better than 90% of everybody else so that’s valuable.
How to Structure it?
There are lots of standardized forms out there. They have all sorts of rating systems. In the old days we had numbers: 1-3. Then we morphed into 1, 2-, 2, 2+, 3. Now many big companies don’t have numbers, they have sayings like, “exceeds expectations on a frequent basis, over delivers against expectations, does what is asked, etc.” They’re all BS. At Salesforce we had something called the V2MOM. Everybody internally laughed at it but Marc talked it up so people sort of had to take it seriously. A bunch of internal Grin F*&^ing if you ask me.
Numbers don’t matter. They’re just a way of trying to quantify something that, let’s be honest, is subjective anyway. Unless you work in sales and you can compare cold, hard numbers let’s just be honest about the subjectivity.
Here’s all you need – 3 sections: Positives, Things that Need to Improve, Things to Work on During the Year (or whatever words you like that represent these). I like to do a numbered list for each area.
I start by brainstorming the headlines like, positives: “completes tasks with very little supervision,” “shows initiative,” or “is detailed oriented and rarely makes mistakes,” or negatives: “has a strong opinion that comes across as condescending to peers or subordinates,” “has a hard time prioritizing tasks and therefore works on a lot of low-priority initiatives” or “lacks structured decision-making ability.” Whatever. I finish this complete list for the entire review before doing any text. I want to make sure at the structure level that it sounds about right.
I next write a paragraph to describe what I mean by each comment. I then make sure to flavor it with examples that I have throughout the year. I try to keep little notes to remind me of instances or else it ends up being a review of the last 6 weeks that you can actually remember. If you don’t have a single example of an instance that proves your point then leave it out. Shame on you for having an area of strength or weakness without a real example. That will never fly. Next time write it down when it happened.
The “areas to work on during the year” is one of the most important sections. It is those things that you’d like to see improved. If the person acts on these things it should make YOUR life better and your company more productive. And presumably if you’re right about your assessments it should make the employee a better worker and benefit them long term.
At the end of the evaluation I like to do a summary paragraph of the flavor of the evaluation.
Don’t have your staff write their own reviews. That’s chicken sh**. That’s lazy. I’m so tired of hearing companies that do this. I know even Google employees who had to do this. If you don’t have the time, insights and responsibility to write your direct reports annual evaluations (read: one time per year!!) then don’t pretend you’re a manager OR a leader. You’re neither.
How to Deliver it?
Don’t send it in advance. Don’t have them read it and get back to you. Your goal is to deliver the news face-to-face. Good news should be delivered in person, bad news should be delivered in person. You need to judge the person’s reactions on the spot. Are they pumped up by what a great employee you told them they were? Are they pissed off because you mentioned that they need to focus more on delivering error-free work?
I like to print one copy – the one in my hand. I read each paragraph to the employee. I stop after each paragraph to have a discussion. Does this sound like what you would expect? I start with the positives. I remind people how important they are to me and how much I appreciate all that they’ve done during the year. It’s a bit like telling your parents you love them. You keep meaning to do it but you never quite get around to it because it’s actually embarrassing to say out loud. But they hugely appreciate it. So do employees. Put it in writing. Say it.
If it’s not a good review you need to say it more so. I usually preface bad news by saying something like, “listen, I’m not saying all of this to be a jerk. My goal is to give you my honest, professional judgment of where you need to improve in order to make progress in your career at our company and beyond. I hope that if you take this seriously it will help you grow. So I’m not saying to simply criticize.”
Not all conversations like this go well. But surprisingly 90% of them do. The most common response is something like, “yeah, it’s tough to hear that in a review. But the truth is that I know that about myself. I can see that I’m too combative and condescending. That I always try to prove that I’m right. But nobody has ever laid it out this clearly in an evaluation before. I think most people sweep it under the rug. Confronting this is going to make me try to work to improve myself. Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed review and giving real examples.” I normally do about 4-5 pages of single space type per evaluation.
How to Revise it?
At the start of the review I say, “listen, I may have gotten some thing wrong. If you feel any area is too harsh or that I’ve put in unfair details please let me know. Substantively your evaluation isn’t going to change but if I’ve screwed up any details I’m willing to change it. So please read over and respond to me within 72 hours with areas you think need to be corrected. 70% of the time they ask for no changes. But sometimes you really did miss something or get something wrong. If that’s the case then change it. But let them know before hand that you won’t automatically accept a change just because they request it. It really needs to be based in fact and with examples.
Why you Need to File It.
Make sure that all evaluations are filed in a personnel file. Mostly you’ll never do anything with this. It won’t be shared with future employers. It won’t likely be used for an actions in your company. But it’s an important signal to your employee that this is a serious document. It is one that has a permanent filing in your HR files. It is something to be taken seriously. It is something to be exceeded next year.
How to Handle Disputes?
Sometimes people won’t agree with your assessments. But you want to get a signed copy on the file.
Round 1: they get to give you feedback on any point on the document that they want. If you think they’re right then amend the document. If you think they’re wrong, say so.
Round 2: if they’re so unhappy that they’re unwilling to sign the document as-is, then let them write a 1-2 paragraph rebuttal at the end of the review. Add it to the formal paperwork that will be signed. But the rest of the document stands.
How to Make Sure it is a Productive Tool?
The key to making this document productive is to make it a discussion. That’s where the real value comes. If you write it really quickly before your one-on-one meeting to get it done then it’s a waste. If you have your employee write it it’s a waste. If you can’t give concrete examples to your staff member it’s a waste. This should serve as a catalyst. It should encourage both reflection and a guideline for the next 12 months. If you take the time to be thoughtful, structured and thorough it will usually confirm what the employee already knows about themselves but nobody had ever laid it out so clearly for them.
In many cases I have employees who have thanked me years later. Or some who probably secretly still think I’m a wanker. Better a wanker who tried than a fence sitter or lazy bugger. But never sweep feedback under the rug.