Employee evaluations can be stressful for everyone involved.
Employees often wait months — if not an entire year— between formal sessions. The longer that stretch of time, the higher the stress, anxiety and stakes surrounding that one-on-one meeting.
Likewise, managers themselves face hurdles when conducting employee appraisals, managing its innate power dynamics while attempting to create a comfortable, insightful meeting that motivates all.
With so much at play, how can you write and conduct a good employee evaluation — one with the right language setting the right atmosphere for employees (and yourself) to learn and grow?
Writing an Employee Evaluation
Every organization will conduct employee evaluations differently. Yet across industries, these sessions are the way for professionals to develop keener self-awareness around skills and aptitudes.
Keep in mind these three parameters to conduct a more successful employee evaluation cycle:
- Setting clear evaluation expectations
- Covering only relevant topics
- Using appropriate, successful performance appraisal language
Each of these parameters is explored in depth below.
1. How to Give a Good Employee Evaluation
One of the most important aspects of giving a good employee performance evaluation is setting clear expectations. All parties involved should have an understanding of the topics on the table, plus ample time to prepare answers and supporting materials.
Write that relevant, functional and constructive employee evaluation outline by bearing in mind the following:
- Make it role-specific: Reviews for IT personnel should be different than those for inside sales reps. Evaluation topics and metrics should be tailored to the role at hand, with an employee aware of those expectations their first day on the job.
- Determine a sensible schedule: Annual reviews are still a de-facto performance thermometer. However, scheduling more frequent formal and informal review sessions reduces the anxiety and suspense inherent in once-a-year reviews. Plus, it allows you to pick and dive into specific role topics or goals, enriching professional-development insights.
- Mirror your company core values: For example, if your organization prioritizes scrappy innovation, frequent yet informal review sessions dedicated to an employee’s projects may be more beneficial. Use your company’s core values and mission statement to help set the tone for evaluations.
- Incorporate quantitative insights: Measurements and metrics help scaffold an objective conversation. These numbers also create a buffer, separating what an employee does from who an employee “is.” In other words, numbers help ensure no one feels personally attacked.
- Flip the script: Give the employee room to ask questions, contextualize achievements and develop growth areas. Make the evaluation less of a lesson plan and more of a conversation.
2. What to Cover in an Employee Evaluation
As much as possible, structure your evaluation around topics with measurable achievements or qualified, relevant data. In most cases, those topics will include any of the following:
- Impact: Impact is the objective results, or outcomes, of an employee’s work. Remember, an employee’s impact will be role-contingent and often project or workflow-oriented. If you’re new and not familiar with someone’s major workloads to quantify impact, just ask — then start scaffolding this topic.
- Performance/productivity: Productivity and performance are measured through output data. For some roles, outputs are innate — think sales reps hitting monthly goals. For others, performance outputs will be personalized, such as a marketing specialist managing all the KPIs on three social media campaigns rather than just one.
- Leadership: Where has an employee taken the lead on a project or workflow or been instrumental in the development of a project involving multiple colleagues or departments? Does the employee engage in external or in-house professional development, such as educational programs?
- Problem-solving: Has the employee showed proactive initiative solving problems when they arise — or spotting a problem before it strikes? Are they positive and sensible when managing the unexpected?
- Creativity: How often does the employee contribute during one-on-one or team meetings? Is the employee receptive to fresh ideas and work processes, and do they actively seek complementary information to improve projects or initiatives?
- Communication/collaboration: How many group projects or workflows is the employee part of? Do colleagues feel comfortable eliciting help or subject matter expertise from the employee? What are specific examples where this collaboration has occurred?
- Attendance/accountability: How many times has the employee missed — or successfully exceeded — a deadline? Does the employee respect others’ time in meeting punctuality, attendance and group work timelines?
3. Employee Evaluation Phrases to Use
Get a deeper sense of how to match language with specific performance topics using the examples below.
- For impact: Opt for achievement-oriented language paired with a data point or metric to prove impact. Ex: “Your re-targeting email campaign increased repeat purchases by 10%.”
- For performance/productivity: Use language similar to impact, relaying a cause-and-effect example of an employee’s performance. Ex: “Since last quarter, you’ve improved your purchasing order approval speeds by 5%.”
- For leadership: Cite a specific example where the employee’s contribution or delegation was essential to a task or workflows success. Ex: “You oversaw the three-person IT team responsible for building our mobile-responsive sales pages.”
- For problem-solving: Relay specific moments where an employee’s efforts solved an issue in real-time or even preemptively. Ex: “Thanks to your review, we caught a duplicate vendor payment scheduled in our system.”
- For creativity: Showcase original contributions to individual or team work, as well as adaptability and open-mindedness to the ideas of others. Ex: “We’ve used six of your ten proposed email subject lines in our recent sales campaign strategy.”
- For communication/collaboration: Share direct quotes from colleagues on a fellow employee’s interpersonal or collaborative savvy. Ex: “Coworkers says you scheduled three one-one-one meetings to work through the new ERP software with a new team member, going out of your way to do so.”
- For attendance/accountability: Review key project or task deadlines, as well as what meeting or missing those deadlines assured. Ex: “Submitting all of your web graphic designs ahead of the deadline gave us an extra week to A/B test a social media campaign’s images.”
Preparing for the Employee Evaluation
Consider these expert-approved best practices when prepping your next cycle of employee feedback.
1. Send an Itinerary
Don’t wait until your employee sits down to share the topics or context of the review. Give that employee time to mentally prepare by sharing the appraisal’s itinerary a few days before the session. The larger the review (e.g., an annual employee performance evaluation or hiring anniversary), the farther ahead you should prep and share the meeting’s outline.
Include the following in your evaluation notes:
- Topics that will be covered
- Projects or workflows you’d like to discuss
- Specific data sets you’d like to review
- Questions the employee must answer before the meeting
- Any additional materials or documents to prepare
2. Alter Your Mindset
It’s easy for employees to see their reviews as open season for criticism. To negate that impression, managers should shift their own appraisal mindsets — and therefore actions — from critiquing personnel to coaching them.
Shifting to that coaching mindset shapes a far more proactive and positive performance review environment. It helps the reviewer conduct the meeting as a conversation, rather than reciting a list of rote accomplishments and a handful of skills to improve. As a result, both you and your colleagues can shift attitudes regarding performance reviews, taking these sessions in stride as learning opportunities rather than personal attacks.
3. Check Biases
Everyone has biases. Those preconceived notions and assumptions can slip into employee reviews when we rush answering performance-appraisal questions — or the meetings themselves — as well as in our everyday workplace interactions.
Bear in mind these forms of implicit bias in the workplace next time you sit down to outline an employee or colleague review:
- Similar-to-me bias: The similar-to-me bias says we think about, treat and behave more positively around those we see as like ourselves.
- Recency bias: Recency bias tricks us into prioritizing the most recent actions or behaviors of an employee rather than considering the whole.
- Halo and horn effect: The halo effects has us rate an employee or colleague positively across all performance categories simply because that employee excels at one specific task. On the other hand, the horn effect pushes us to holistically rate an employee as poor because of one or two pressing growth areas.
4. Elicit Other’s Feedback
Colleague feedback provides a new garden of insights to work into your review. In many cases, those colleagues may even have a more informed view on the strengths, growth areas and soft skills someone maintains, as well as how those characteristics play out across the everyday.
Use a feedback form with standardized questions or fields related to the reviewee’s role. Send that form to pertinent colleagues or team members who interact most with the employee up for review, allowing plenty of time to respond thoughtfully.
5. Employ Active Listening Best Practices
Whenever possible, schedule performance appraisal sessions face to face. Remote or field employee reviews should ideally take place over a video medium, allowing you to perceive in real-time responses such as facial expressions, body language and other nonverbal cues.
On your end, use these verbal and nonverbal active-listening best practices:
- Repeat back what you’ve heard, ensuring you’ve understood a speaker’s real meaning.
- Ask follow-up questions, allowing an employee to clarify or expand insights.
- Talk naturally, referencing your notes rather than reading from papers or screens.
- Observe body language for clues the employee is uncomfortable, confused or frustrated.
- Avoid generalizing language like “always” or “never.” If an employee displays repetitive positive or negative behavior, reveal it through examples, not blanket statements.
- Accept that discomfort will be natural and even inevitable at some points during the session.
6. Use the Context-Impact Formula as Often as Possible
When reviewing an employee’s major accomplishments and growth areas, use a context-impact approach. This formula allows you to first contextualize a point (usually via a real-life example of a project or behavior), then give the impact of that example. Often, the context-impact formula will mirror this sort of language:
- “Your work on [project/workflow/activity] was instrumental to [positive impact/measurable outcome].
- “I would like to see you focus more on [action/behavior]. Doing so would result in [positive impact/measurable outcome].
The context-impact approach to employee reviews has several benefits:
- Works for both technical and soft skills
- Allows you to stay positive and specific
- Suggests direct action
- Leaves room to cite stats, numbers
- Avoids generalizations like “always” or never”
Getting Feedback From Other Team Members
Collecting relevant colleague feedback is key to conducting productive and less-biased employee evaluations. Here are suggestions to help ensure you get the colleague insights you need for effective employee performance reviews.
1. Frame What You’re Looking For
Clearly state the parameters of the necessary feedback for an upcoming review, specifically:
- Formal or informal: Are insights to be used for formal annual reviews or as part of an ad-hoc performance request?
- General context: Are you looking for insights related to a specific project or department function? Or are you accepting broader insights and observations? Will colleague notes be used for mentorship purposes, praise or new personal goal development — or all of the above?
- Overall review timeline: Colleagues don’t need to know the exact dates of feedback sessions. However, it’s helpful to know if one is taking place next week or next month. Setting a feedback deadline helps colleagues dedicate an appropriate amount of time to giving feedback so no one feels rushed.
2. Send a Direct Feedback Form
Don’t leave employees in limbo wondering what to send back. Create a simple feedback form with a handful of specific, role-pertinent open-answer and multiple-choice fields. Using a standard feedback document helps focus attention and makes the process more convenient for your colleagues. You’ll hear better insights as a result.
3. Emphasize Examples and Results of a Colleague’s Work
Shape the questions on your feedback forms to illicit context-impact examples. Prod colleagues to share real-life cases where an employee performed a specific task, led an initiative or made a positive contribution that resulted in a particular accomplishment.
The same prompts can be used to help elicit areas of improvement for employees, with real-life examples and behaviors illustrating professional growth.
4. Select One to Three Colleague Notes for Each Covered Topic
Keep employee reviews on track by selecting a handful of colleague examples for each topic covered (leadership, creativity, etc.). Similarly, if the goal of the session is to review overall professional strengths and growth domains, select a handful of pertinent colleague notes for each.
Avoid inundating the reviewee — especially with developmental suggestions or anything that can be perceived as criticism. Make examples succinct and relay only relevant details to make your point.
5. Consider a Wrap-Up Summary
Employee performance reviews can be lengthy and detailed, particularly annual reviews, which involve analyzing months of goals, milestones and benchmarks together in a limited amount of time.
Consider ending reviews with three to five main takeaways. What are the handful of key ideas or suggestions you want your colleague to take from the session? What are the major milestones you want them to feel commended for — and one or two developmental skills or behaviors to work on for next time? Funnel these takeaways into a summary using positive but direct language:
- “Overall, people are impressed with your work on [project/milestone].”
- “Others’ are inspired by your ability to [talent/behavior].”
- “I’d love to see you dig deeper to contribute more [skill/behavior].”
- “I’d suggest trying out [new behavior/process] instead of [old behavior/process] to see [impact].”
6. Let Employees Pick Their Colleague Reviewers
In recent years, many companies have experimented with allowing people to select colleagues to fill out appraisal forms. Contrary to the assumption employees will pick their friends, many honor the system and select those most familiar with their work and professional habits. At its best, this kind of system can make employees more comfortable with the review process and more transparent with one another.
7. Don’t Forget Clients/Customers
When relevant, you can even field direct feedback from clients and customers to package into a review. These offer yet another angle of performance insights useful not only to the employee at hand but also to everyone in the organization with a client-facing role.
Performance Review Phrases to Say and Performance Review Phrases Not to Say
As the mantra goes, it’s not what you say — it’s how you say it. When it comes to professional performance reviews, this couldn’t be more true.
Use savvier phrasing and emotional intelligence to guide more practical employee evaluations — ones where all parties leave feeling inspired.
1. Language for Evaluating Your Employees
Vertical hierarchies and power dynamics are most at play during manager-employee reviews. As a result, those performing the review have a responsibility to pay attention to the overt or subtle ways they may be reinforcing uncomfortable power dynamics during evaluations.
Ensure as much of an equitable, conversational and mutually engaging environment as possible by following these patterns of phrasing.
Do say to your employees:
- “You stand out among your peers for your [action/behavior/skill], which often results in [impact].” This kind of language reveals your attentiveness as a manager, as well as your ability to recognize the innate contributions of every employee.
- “Let’s explore ways we could improve [action/behavior skill] to see [impact].” This statement is collaborative and nonjudgmental, giving the employee a say in their growth goals.
- “You could be better at [action/behavior/skill].” This statement may be true, but it doesn’t give context or provide a suggestion for functional improvement.
- “This is how I would do [task/responsibility.]” Again, this statement may be true but can come across as pedantic and overbearing.
2. Language for Evaluating Your Colleagues
Peer-to-peer evaluations excel when they stick to observable behaviors and never stray to something inherent or personal. Using forms with pre-set questions helps curate effective colleague reviews, ensuring feedback stays helpful, specific and professional.
Do say about your colleagues:
- “[X]’s ability to [behavior/skill] stands out on our team. It often results in [positive impact].” Ending your praise with this kind of impact statement qualifies your colleague’s skills as essential to the team or company, which is a key factor in what makes a good performance evaluation.
- “When [X] did [task/project], it really helped me because [consequence].” The language here illustrates a positive instance of cause and effect in the workplace, reinforcing collaboration and company core values.
- “I think [X] would shine further in their role if they [behavior/skill adaptation], because [impact].” This provides a functional suggestion for your colleague, not a vague complaint.
- “[X] is [personality trait].” Terms like “aggressive,” “lazy,” and “inept” — or even positives like “friendly” or “helpful” — are labels without constructive examples backing them up.
- “I don’t have any feedback.” Even all-star colleagues must have some professional goal, technical skill or career-relevant curiosity you can suggest exploring.
3. Language for Evaluating Yourself
Self-awareness and thoughtful reflection are hallmarks of evaluating ourselves effectively. When contributing to our own professional evaluations, it’s also essential to pair as many comments as possible with numeric proof — especially when it comes to achievements.
Try using phrases like the following for your own evaluations:
- “I successfully finished [project/milestone], which achieved [numeric impact] for our team/organization.” Discuss your achievements proudly with quantitative detail or illustrative examples to get the point across.
- “I’m proud of the [numeric impact/milestone], which was reached through my [behavior/numeric contribution].” Similar to the first statement, this kind of phrasing showcases your uncontested impact on the organization.
- “I will improve myself going forward by demonstrating [behavior]. I plan to practice this during [task/example].” Connecting the dots between workplace behavior and a positive professional impact shows your ability to grow.
- “I’ve heard others’ feedback, and I will change [behavior/workflow] since it tends to cause [negative contribution/impact].” This phrase takes ownership of your actions while establishing a corrective alternative.
- “That wasn’t my fault.” You’re more than allowed to defend yourself during evaluations or explain another side to a story. What you should never do is play a blame game.
- Being a “yes-man.” Performance evaluations are your place to dive deep, give qualitative performance examples and show your manager your career interests and passions. Merely agreeing with everything they say does the opposite.
- “It was a team effort.” Acknowledging others is important, but be proud of the work you contributed and highlight its impact rather than coast along with the crowd.
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