Get Your Performance Appraisal Discussions off to a Good Start

by Dick Grote

Too often, participants in performance appraisal meetings seem awkward and uncomfortable. To some extent, that's unavoidable — it's always a bit awkward for one person to deliver a formal assessment of the quality of work performed by another.

But following some simple suggestions can eliminate a lot of the awkwardness in performance appraisal meetings. Here are some couple of tips that will help put both players at ease.

Gather Your Appraisal Information and Materials in Advance

The most important item you need to have is a copy of the individual's performance appraisal. That's obvious. But that's not all.

At the beginning of the year you and the individual probably had a performance planning meeting. Ideally, the individual would have taken notes on a blank copy of the appraisal form and made a copy for you. That document should have all of the key items that you discussed during the meeting. Be sure you have a copy of that planning document in case a question about the original goals comes up.

You'll also need information about the individual's performance, particularly if there are some areas where the performance varied significantly from your expectations. Whether the variation was in a positive or negative direction, you'll need to be able to demonstrate why you assigned the rating that you did. If the assessment is that the individual's performance was less than you desired, then it's critically important that you have all of the evidence you used in order to come to that "Unsatisfactory" or "Need Improvement" performance appraisal rating. There's a magic phrase to use here. That phrase is, "For example ..." Make sure you've got plenty of examples that support a less-than-satisfactory evaluation.

You may want to have a copy of the individual's development plan. You may want to have copies of weekly reports that the individual submitted that described progress against the goals that were set. You can't make a mistake by having too much support material. It will prevent the embarrassment of being unable to find anything of substance to justify the rating you gave.

Make a List

What are the key points that you want to cover during the discussion? In addition to having a copy of the performance appraisal, write down a list of the most important items you want to discuss. It's easy to refer to them during the meeting to make sure that everything that needs to be discussed gets covered.

Pick an Appropriate Place

Probably most performance appraisal discussions take place in the manager's office, with the manager behind the desk and the appraisee sitting directly in front of it.

Is that the best place to hold the discussion? It may well be, particularly if the performance appraisal is not very good and the manager wants to trot out all of the power and authority available to make the subordinate understand that immediate change is necessary. But too often the authoritarian, boss-behind-the-desk arrangement serves to emphasize the power relationship at a time when a more collegial approach might be more effective.

More important than the actual location where the discussion ends up taking place is the decision-making process the manager engages in to determine that location. Too often, managers conduct the performance appraisal discussion behind their desks by default — they haven't given any thought to the matter and just let it happen in the place where they are most comfortable.

There are several other alternatives possible. The manager's office might not offer complete privacy, particularly if walls are thin or it's a cubicle arrangement. In this case a conference room or the temporarily vacant office of an out-of town senior manager might be pressed into service. If the performance appraisal contains good news and the two participants in the appraisal drama are old colleagues, it might best be conducted over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. And if it is conducted in the manager's office, just a little furniture rearrangement might reduce the hierarchical nature of the discussion.

If the performance appraisal does indeed contain bad news, and particularly if the manager believes that it will take a dramatic gesture to bring home the message of "Change or else!", the appraiser's boss's office might be a good location. Having your boss give you your performance appraisal in her boss's office — with her boss sitting in as an observer/reinforcer — certainly communicates the seriousness of the message being delivered.

But beware the unusual location. The district sales manager that gives one of her sales reps his annual performance appraisal while the two of them are in the car, driving down the highway on route to a new prospect's office, is exercising bad judgment. So too is any manager who selects a location significantly away from a business setting, unless the necessity for conducting the performance review at that time, in that location, is obvious to both players.

So, to reduce the feelings of discomfort that often come when a performance appraisal is discussed: gather your materials in advance, make a list of the key points you need to cover, and pick an appropriate place for the discussion. Here are some more suggestions that will make the performance appraisal discussion more relaxed.

Choose a Convenient Time

When is the best time to hold a performance appraisal discussion? There isn't any one particular time that is ideal — mornings or afternoons, early or late in the week, it doesn't matter.

What does matter is having enough time. Wise managers set a specific time for a performance review — perhaps 60 minutes — and announce at the beginning of the meeting just how long they have budgeted for the discussion. But they also make sure that the next activity scheduled for after the appraisal discussion is one that is either a low-priority (so that it can be re-scheduled) or highly flexible (like working on a long-range plan). It may turn out that more time is needed to discuss some sensitive items that arise during the discussion. It may also be that the performance appraisal discussion turns into a highly creative brainstorming session that needs to continue beyond the one-hour schedule. Make sure there's enough time for unexpected events to play out.

Determine the Agenda

How are you going to kick off the performance appraisal discussion? What are the first words you plan to say? Will you review the performance appraisal sheet section by section, or do you want to start with the final rating and move backwards from there? When are you going to go over the employee's self-appraisal?

Too often these questions are answered simply as "it just happened that way" — the manager gave no thought to the sequence of events that he wanted to follow.

A better approach is to have an agenda for the meeting. The agenda need not be written down (although that's not a bad idea) but the manager needs to decide in advance how he wants to structure the discussion.

Arrange for Work Coverage

If you don't have someone to answer your phone and you can't switch the phone to send all calls directly into voicemail, then make a firm decision to simply ignore any phone calls that come in during the meeting. Steal a "Do Not Disturb" sign from the next hotel room you stay in and put it on the door handle of the room where you're meeting. Tell your staff and colleagues to follow the "thousand-mile rule" — don't disturb you with anything unless it's of the same urgency that they would track you down and interrupt you if you were a thousand miles away.

Give the Individual a Copy of the Performance Appraisal to Read in Advance of the Meeting

Before I became a consultant, I spent fifteen years working for three large corporations: General Electric, United Airlines, and PepsiCo. Each one of those companies had a rigorous performance appraisal system; every one of my bosses took the process seriously.

But each one followed the same clumsy procedure when the day came for my performance appraisal discussion. At the time we had set for the meeting I would walk into his office and he would hand me the appraisal. I would try to read through the multi-page document just as fast as I could while my boss sat behind his desk trying to gauge from my reactions how I was taking it.

What a bumbling way to start the meeting! How can an employee take everything in from two minutes of speed-reading?

Here's a far better way to get the meeting off to an efficient, business-like start. An hour or two before the appraisal meeting is scheduled, give the employee the performance appraisal. Say, "Sam, at 3:00 this afternoon we're going to get together for your performance review. I'd like you to read through the performance appraisal ahead of time so that you're prepared for our meeting. Feel free to write any questions you have directly on the form, or highlight anything that you want to be sure we talk about. See you then."

Sam now has some time to read carefully what you have written, at his own pace. He can reflect on the things you've said without having to immediately defend or explain himself. He can jot down notes and think of questions he'd like to ask.

If you ask people to complete a self-appraisal, ask for it at the same time that you give them a copy of their appraisal (if you haven't asked them to send it to you earlier so you can use it as an information-source in completing the official performance appraisal). You too will be more relaxed and better prepared by being able to read, in an unpressured way, what the individual has written about herself.

One caution, however. If the person you're reviewing is a marginal performer with a bad rating, wait until the beginning of the meeting to hand over the performance appraisal. This increases your control of the situation.

Must performance appraisal discussions be uncomfortable exchanges? No. Following these small suggestions will help produce appraisal discussions that turn out to be productive learning events and true team-building experiences.

Copyright © 2006 Dick Grote

About the Author

Dick Grote is a management consultant in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in helping organizations design effective performance management Dick Grote is a management consultant in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in helping organizations design effective performance management systems and build leadership excellence: He is the author of the management classics, Discipline Without Punishment, The Complete Guide to Performance Appraisal, and The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book. His most recent book, How to be Good at Performance Appraisals, was published by the Harvard Business School Press in 2011.

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