How to Set Up Your First Performance Review

Performance reviews are a tentpole of employee feedback. Whether done annually, bi-annually or more frequently, they provide structure to conversations between managers and reports, and guide compensation and promotion processes.

Some startups and small businesses make do without a formal process, relying on managers to take initiative in giving feedback. With a small staff size, leaders can ensure every employee is finding ways to develop and improve. Everyone knows the company mission and can align their personal goals effectively. But as a company grows, leaders find they need a formalized process to ensure their culture stays intact.

See Also: Sample Performance Review Questions

Because every company is different, there is no standard performance review. Putting together your company’s first performance review doesn’t have to be hard. We spoke with Rachel Ernst, former head of people at Quantcast, to learn how to create a performance review process.

Q&A With Rachel Ernst, head of people at Quantcast

It’s time to create a performance review program. Where do we start?

A review program can have a significant impact on employees’ happiness.

A review program is a big deal and can actually have a significant impact on employees’ happiness. I definitely recommend taking time to create a program, however simple it may be. When you’re developing a performance review program (a manner in which the company is guiding feedback to be given and received), three things I recommend doing are to create it in partnership with the executives and key managers to ensure buy in, to factor in how feedback currently happens, and to think about what kind of culture you have at your company.

Let’s take a look at each of these separately.

Getting management buy-in

Grab a few executives at your company who have shown interest in people-related topics to get their input on how they’d like feedback to happen, and to understand their opinion on the goal of a review program. Write up a few questions to guide this conversation – people can get passionate about this, so just make sure you keep it on topic!

Get their input on how they’d like feedback to happen, and to understand their opinion on the goal of a review program.

Similarly, talk with a small group of strong managers to ask the same questions that you asked your executives. This is always an interesting exercise, because sometimes there is a difference between the executive point of view and the managers’. This difference in views is even something you can share with each party after the conversations have happened!

Gauging how feedback happens

Check with each function to see if they have any kind of structure for their feedback. Many times in the absence of a company program, individual functions or managers have created their own system.

What other ways of gathering feedback does the company have? How do they happen? How simple or complex are they?

Observing your culture

How do people usually get their work done? Is it quick and agile or slow and methodical?

How do people talk to each other? Are they generally direct and to the point?

Once you’ve gathered these inputs, use your findings to help guide the right kind of program for your company. If you’ve never had a program before, I recommend keeping it simple and easy. Here’s a quick recommendation on creating a feedback program for two different kinds of cultures.

  • Companies that are quick, fly by the seat of your pants organization that have never done reviews: Develop 4-5 questions that a manager and employee answer 3-4 few times per year in a check in conversation.
  • More structured and methodical companies that have some precedent for reviews: Build upon components of what is currently done now.Develop 4-5 questions that are function-specific, that both managers and employees respond to. Consider including peer feedback opportunities in your program and implement a review system to track feedback.

What questions should be included in a performance review?

As Simon Sinek would say, I would “start with why.” By the way, “Start With Why” is a great book, you should check it out!

A review is meant to help someone understand how they’re doing and how they can learn and develop Click To Tweet

To start, ask yourself “What is our company’s goal of our performance reviews?” This will help guide the kind of questions you want to include in your reviews. In my opinion, a review is meant to help someone understand how they’re doing in their job, and how they can continue to learn and develop.

If you’ve never done reviews at your company before, I recommend keeping it very simple – a few questions that are short and direct. Here are a few ideas of what you can use:

  • What expectations did we agree upon? Please describe observed performance relative to these expectations (specific deliverables, relationships or knowledge to build).
  • What skills are important for this job and provide observations of how well this employee has exhibited these skills.
  • What would you like to see your employee doing more often? Less often?
  • What areas are important for this employee to learn, in order to grow further in their role?

Last, I always recommend that when managers fill out these questions, they consider the desired end game of the review conversation. Specifically, what would you like the employee to do with the feedback and what do you want them to think about themselves?

How can you prepare managers to effectively lead reviews?

Start preparing them well in advance of when they need to lead a review conversation. Make sure to send communications out with timelines and expectations so managers can plan their time accordingly.

Don’t forget to also spend time on tips for giving feedback.

It’s also helpful to run a few trainings to communicate how the review program works, and all information that they need to best fulfill their role in the review program (feedback, performance ratings, compensation decisions). Don’t forget to also spend time on tips for giving feedback. The two most useful parts of training that I’ve found are discussing employee/manager feedback scenarios, and providing a manager discussion guide.

I usually write several scenarios that are representative of what managers are facing with their employees and we discuss how to have feedback conversations for each scenario. I also create a one-pager manager discussion guide including tips on giving feedback, a sample conversation flow, and key dates. This can be posted online for managers or provided as an attachment after the training.

The other important factor that we typically forget, is helping people with how to receive feedback. If there is time and budget, I believe it’s important to help all employees with how to receive feedback from peers and managers. There’s a simple and helpful book about this called “Where is the Gift” by Nigel Bristow. You can either hire a vendor to run this training or create your own with helpful tidbits from this book.

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