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How to write a performance review

We’re in the midst of annual reviews at my company; unlike some companies, which schedule an annual review on the anniversary of the employee’s hire date, we do ours all at once, at the beginning of the year. Part of the review process is “peer feedback;” that is, each employee has the ability to request feedback from co-workers on his or her performance throughout the year. In addition, each employee creates a “self-assessment,” where he or she analyzes his or her own performance over the past year.

Having recently finished reading dozens of these, I’d like to share what I find most helpful in a well-written peer or self assessment. (Note: your company’s process is most likely somewhat different than mine, so feel free to adapt this to your particular situation. I do think, however, that the general principles are common to most business settings.)

The first rule of thumb is: be on time! A review or self-assessment that arrives before my deadline for reporting on you is infinitely more valuable than one that arrives later. When I have to tell my manager about your performance, I’m going to have to rely on my (imperfect) memory about your work if you don’t give me your self-assessment to remind me. Six sentences scrawled on the back of an envelope (who uses envelopes any more, any way?) is far, far better than a dozen pages that arrive 24 hours too late.

Second: nouns are better than verbs. Which of these sounds better?

  1. Bob was an excellent performer whose efficient work was creative and elegant. or
  2. During the First Widget project, Bob’s design for the left-hand invigorator was delivered early and was used as an example for all the remaining invigorators.

The first one has glowing adjectives (“excellent,” “efficient,” “creative,” etc.) but no details. The second example gives specific examples of the work that Bob did to justify his performance.

When you write a review, think of specific examples and specific value that the other employee (or yourself) has provided to the company: “Jane solved the XYZ problem and saved the company $12 gazillion per year” is much better than “Jane’s creativity was a great benefit to the project.”

Finally, be honest. The most common example of this is, “I can’t see any possible room for improvement in Jill’s performance.” Really? Jill is absolutely perfect and cannot be improved in any way? What that tells me is that you didn’t take the review seriously enough to put in a little effort to think about Jill’s performance. Not only does it give me nothing to discuss with Jill, it also reflects badly on you.

Dishonesty appears in other guises as well: “Matthew was always an eager participant at meetings.” Superlatives like “always” are very difficult to justify—maybe Matthew is an exception, and he was “always an eager participant,” but a few examples of his eagerness would be better than an overeager statement like this that’s difficult to justify.

Glen Campbell
January 17, 2010