The words "performance review" are two of the most dreaded among agency managers and staffers alike, alluding to what often is considered little more than an HR-arranged torture exercise. But there are ways to make the review experience not only bearable, but also beneficial for everyone involved.
"The most important thing about a review is that it's a two-way dialogue," says Erica Amestoy, director at Hill & Knowlton's Irvine, CA, office. The process, she says, offers an employee both the opportunity to improve and allows him or her to share workplace perceptions with a manager.
Amestoy says that to make formal reviews helpful and less stressful, it's essential to provide informal reviews throughout the year and keep communication lines open.
"People want feedback," she says, even if it's not always obvious.
Instead of having employees and managers fill out a typical "42-page guide of yes/no questions," says Aaron Kwittken, CEO and managing partner at New York-based Kwittken & Co., his firm relies on a four-quadrant review form. Completed by both parties, the form addresses strengths, weaknesses, areas to improve, and "actual concrete action items."
The latter, Kwittken says, allows staff to leave the review and immediately take steps to improve. Action items, he notes, could be anything from signing up for PowerPoint training to "limiting typos from two a week to one."
And while employees have been conditioned to equate performance reviews with raises, Kwittken says that breaking the review-compensation connection helps staff focus on improvement. Still, he adds, "I'm a fan of spot bonuses."
In reviewing employees, Kwittken notes, it's "very important for managers to take into consideration where a person comes from." While all staffers need to be held to the same standards, he says, "personally knowing your people" helps you give better advice.
Though larger firms may need a sense of bureaucracy to keep order, Joe Kessler, partner at Venice, CA-based SS&K, agrees that maintaining "a human element" in the performance review process helps to alleviate anxiety and ensure every employee's personal needs are addressed.
"Our review process is much more attuned to qualities in people that [contribute] to the whole," Kessler says. "If a person is tremendously creative, but not quite so good at another three things, it's OK. It gives us the flexibility to interpret evaluations differently."
Kessler adds that while there is some yes/no scaling on his firm's formal review form, "a bigger percentage is written commentary: what makes [the employee] good, where are they excelling."
To keep reviews constructive, they must be collaborative and tailored to each employee's interests, says David Herbst, SVP and GM at MWW Group's LA office.
"A performance review is all about, 'how do I move my team member ahead; how do we work together to better to serve the client?'" Herbst says. At the end of the review, both employee and manager should have a "clear road map" to reach their mutual goals.
At times, however, the review process "also bears out where people aren't able to keep up," he says.
But that can still be a positive result, says Kwittken. "Sometimes, the good result is you find that a person just isn't working," he explains. Either way, the "result is good because you have one. We're trying to avoid stagnation."
Alleviate review-time stress by maintaining lines of communication all year
Offer concrete, immediately actionable items to help employees improve and advance
Make the review a two-way process by encouraging staffers' feedback