How to Conduct Performance Reviews That Are Effective, Timely, and Constructive
A formal annual review has long been considered the golden standard for delivering an assessment of how an employee has been handling their responsibilities and how they can improve. On the other hand, concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of such assessments, their timing, and their potential to create more obstacles for an employee, especially if they're sensitive to criticism. This begs the question: Do performance reviews really matter?
Why Performance Reviews Are Crucial
Yes, reviews absolutely matter. They aren't a perfect system, by any means, but they come with some core benefits that shouldn't be swept aside.
First and foremost, employees want to know how they're doing and how they can improve. Delivering constructive feedback in a review is optimal as employees will expect it — versus offering it in a less formal setting, which may just catch them off guard. Equally important, regular performance reviews afford both you and your staff members an opportunity to discuss promotion policies and compensation. Keep abreast of industry standards to ensure your employees are being paid fairly.
Additionally, regular reviews allow employees to express their concerns, goals, and ideas that may impact your lab's performance beyond their individual responsibilities. This may be the only opportunity you have to sit down with certain employees for a length of time, so it's key to make time in your review for these discussions.
Annual Reviews vs. Rolling Reviews
As a busy water lab manager, finding the right time for — or frequency of — reviews may be tricky. Is waiting an entire year to deliver a review really a good idea? After all, if you let bad habits or misguided practices slide for a year before speaking up, it could be detrimental to your lab — not to mention, the longer you wait to say something, the harder it may be for that employee to change their behavior.
Moreover, an annual review can be a stressful event: As it looms off in the distance, employees may feel like they're bracing for a managerial Judgment Day rather than an opportunity to sit down, compare notes and observations, and set goals. To assuage this anxiety and keep these conversations productive, it's worth considering a rolling review approach — a culture where ongoing discussion and review of goals, processes, and metrics is the norm.
In a commentary for Inc., Thomas Koulopoulos proposes holding regular, sometimes even daily, conversations about performance and development. He argues, "The rate of progress, market, and technological change have made a yearly review nonsense. Using feedback on performance to course correct once a year, or even twice a year, is akin to trying to navigate a minefield by reviewing your performance after you've crossed it."
In an article for Harvard Business Review, management professors Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis also tout the value of rolling reviews, saying that reserving these conversations for an annual affair holds "people accountable for past behavior at the expense of improving current performance and grooming talent for the future."
How to Conduct Effective Performance Reviews
Whether you choose to overhaul the annual review in favor of more regular conversations or not, you'll need to land on a schedule and structure that works best for your employees and your lab's operations. Meeting too often could put you behind schedule, after all, so this cadence needs to be just right.
Additionally, no two employees are the same, whether in their personality and skill sets or in the kinds of projects that define their day-to-day routine. Consequently, there is no one-size-fits-all template for employee reviews. However, there are frameworks and tools you can use.
Some companies are turning to a two-step review process to eliminate any surprises come the formal meeting. This involves the use of software that lets both you and your employee rate their performance based on criteria you define. This approach also gives employees an opportunity to provide feedback and chronicle any of their wins throughout the evaluation period.
Evaluating Larger Team Performance
Team meetings can be used to assess employees' performance on a much more frequent basis. In regular team meetings, give employees the opportunity to discuss both their individual victories and how they helped the team progress toward achieving project milestones. These conversations may bring to light players who could thrive in a leadership role and those who may need a little more coaching.
Assessing Technical Knowledge at the Bench
Errors at the bench could harm your lab's reputation, damage client relationships, or put public safety at risk. Take time to assess employees' technical knowledge on a schedule that works for your lab. This can be more formal, such as instituting a Friday check-in, or more sporadic, such as you joining them on the bench and taking notes.
To develop your team's skills and efforts in ways that help you achieve your lab's larger goals, employees need to know what is expected of them. Whether you host performance reviews annually or more regularly, these meetings are an effective way for you to communicate your expectations while motivating staff members to meet them.