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Once-a-year performance reviews? So old-school

Give employees feedback more often to head off problems.

November 15, 2012
By Robert Half International

The annual performance review is a venerable tradition among companies of all sizes and types. But is it really the most effective way to evaluate your employees’ work and help them fine-tune their skills?

How relevant is it to discuss projects or activities that are almost a year old? And frankly, unless you keep very good notes, how well can you remember important details of something a staff member accomplished more than a few weeks or months ago?

What’s more, the once-a-year review can be unduly influenced by events immediately preceding it. If an employee is performing well, for example, the manager may overlook problems that occurred in the “distant” past. But if the individual has recently hit a difficult patch, this can unfairly overshadow previous peaks.

Instead of the static annual model of performance reviews, why not make them more frequent and dynamic? After all, there’s no rule that says you can only offer feedback to your employees once every 12 months. By keeping closer track of employee performance and providing more timely input (either encouragement and praise or tactful correction and guidance), you can help your staff perform more consistently and effectively.

In addition, you’ll be able to nip problems in the bud, rather than waiting until they blossom into chronic issues. Conducting reviews more often will also help you with staffing challenges. You’ll be able to identify skill gaps or work overloads so you can quickly address them by bringing in temporary staff. Finally, a more frequent review schedule will also give you the chance to touch base with your employees about their most current career aspirations, so you can determine how to provide appropriate professional development opportunities. 

If you would like to shift from the old-style performance review model to a new, fresh approach, the following suggestions may help ease the transition.

Aim for “frequent” but not too frequent. Don’t try to switch from annual to monthly reviews, for example. The changeover will be more manageable if you aim for a quarterly timetable. This is frequent enough to gain an accurate picture of employee performance without creating an administrative burden for you and your team.

Develop flexible criteria. In collaboration with staff members, most managers identify key objectives for each employee and for the team as a whole. More frequent reviews allow you to ascertain whether these benchmarks are still appropriately targeted. A more dynamic review process may also mean you will evaluate performance differently, for example when an employee is midway through a project versus when he has completed it and the outcome is known, or when an employee is transitioning into a new role.

Don’t try to do too much. Avoid the temptation to use the new timetable to micromanage employee behavior or work habits. It’s not necessary to fine-tune every single detail of your workers’ performance. The goal is to give timely feedback, not make your staff feel as if they’re constantly under a microscope and subject to relentless analysis.

Help them avoid overreacting to a “bad grade.” More frequent reviews are like progress reports in school—they provide an interim rather than final “grade.” This has benefits as well as drawbacks. Make sure your employees know that a single “bad” review is not fatal and they have plenty of time to turn around performance.

Provide concrete opportunities for improvement and growth. It’s not helpful to employees if you suggest they work on their communication skills but fail to give them the chance to do so. Whenever you give constructive feedback, be prepared to brainstorm with people to devise ways they can develop needed skills or experience. The relative success of such skill-building opportunities will then become the focus of the next performance review.

This article is provided courtesy of Robert Half International, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources. Robert Half is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time and project basis. Follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.