Employee reviews have gotten a bad rap, but they can be done effectively. It is important to have a check-in to ensure alignment, deepen rapport, and set the tone for the coming year. However, there is a brain bias that keeps most reviews from showing the full picture. Depending on the employee, this could make their overall performance seem much more positive (or much more negative) than what it really is. It's called the Peak-End Rule.
When evaluating any experience--from buying a product online to having a painful medical procedure to evaluating an employee's performance--our brains use this shortcut to make the process easier and faster. Instead of doing lengthy calculations to compare every moment of the experience and find an average, we reflect on the most extreme event (the peak) and the most recent (the end) to determine our overall opinion.
Consider the last time you did an employee review. Did you evaluate every day, project, meeting, conversation, and interaction over the entire year to find your average rating? Or, did you sit at your desk and reflect on the most prominent moments that came to mind and use those in the review?
We are all victim to this bias, but there are a few things you can do to make all your reviews more impactful.
1. Consider every employee you need to review.
Make a list of your employees and note their review dates. If your company does all reviews at one time during the year, consider staggering your prep days for employees a week apart so you can dedicate the proper time to each employee. Check their previous review to identify their goals and points of focus for the year.
2. Choose your note-taking method.
Whether you like to take freehand notes in a notebook or type into a document, it is important to choose a consistent spot where you will keep your notes throughout the year. I have always kept a Word document for each employee, and even if I made notes by hand during the week it was important to move those into the master file, which leads to the next tip.
3. Block regular time to make your notes.
My recommendation for this is weekly. Daily would be great, but it's likely too much of a commitment for most people to maintain, and monthly is too long to capture the level of data you want or to make this a habit. Consider putting this on the calendar for a time you typically get distracted and have a lull in productivity--maybe 2 p.m. Friday or just before lunch on Wednesdays. Keep it as consitent as you can and block enough time to get through every employee on your list (and add time to take notes about your own work). As you get proficient, you likely will only need five minutes per person, but you may want to pad that a bit in the beginning.
4. Jot it all down, including average stuff.
At that weekly meeting with yourself, dedicate a few minutes to write down the happenings of that past week for each employee. Your inclination will be to only write the extreme highs and lows (there's that brain bias again) but write down some average items as well to keep a more grounded perspective. Tie it back to their goals and areas of focus, and try to write at least one positive, one area for improvement, and one neutral comment for each person. This can be a bulleted list--no need for perfect paragraphs--just make sure it is detailed enough so you will know what you meant when you go back to use the list come review time.
5. Write the reviews.
Spreading the notes over a year makes it so much easier come review time. Instead of having that moment of staring blankly at your computer and wondering, "What did we work on last July?" you now have a list of projects, accomplishments, average work days, and opportunities for improvement to write into a comprehensive review. You can easily find trends and have concrete examples of performance to back up your findings.
6. Expand beyond the review.
A comprehensive list of notes throughout the year makes it possible to have useful conversations at any time and improve performance gradually instead of only looking once a year and being swayed by one or two big peaks.
I always encouraged staff to keep track of their own performance throughout the year as well. Come review time, I got a list of highlights so I knew what was important to them. Bonus: use the notes from your performance in your annual review with your boss and get ready for them to be impressed.