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How I write performance reviews

Some of my favorite conversations have been through performance reviews with my team. It has led to promotions, raises, and a renewed sense of purpose at work. I suspect that many people dread their performance reviews with their managers. Conversely, I hear about the dread of hosting performance reviews from managers. It's sad. I ultimately believe there is a lot of value in a performance review, and so I'll share a few points on why. This opportunity to motivate a team shouldn't be lost in fear of "what do I say?" and "how do I do this?".

A typical performance review summarizes three aspects of an employee's career.

  1. The employee's performance over a duration,
  2. Development opportunities for improvement to the next level,
  3. And expectations of the employee in the following duration.

A good performance review will give employees an understanding of how they've used their strengths and skills to accomplish work in the business. Your goal in evaluating an employee's performance is to provide examples and descriptions of their accomplishments and correlate their impact on the business, industry, and team. You can write this as you would a bullet point on a resume. Pick a strong verb, what they did, what business impact or reason, and with what skills.

Below is an example performance review discussing the employee's performance over the last six months. I provided three examples of their engineering, business, and team accomplishments and correlated them to our team's mission and vision.

The first part of their performance review is exploratory. It asks us to listen to the employee's peers, the team's stakeholders, and company leadership. Some parts may be missing in terms of performance and expectations. That is normal, but what we do in a performance review is highlight what did happen and its impact. The missing behaviors and accomplishments can be a great transition into the next section of the performance review.

The areas of growth and opportunity for an employee is depended on the team and the individual's goals. In this portion of the performance conversation, we share our widen perspective on what is needed to advance this individual's career goals.

If an employee shares that they desire to be promoted, the performance review career should discuss what is needed or expected. It's important to refer to the company or corporate career ladder for this if it's possible. I recommend looking at the employee's level, below and above, to ensure you have what you need to justify a promotion. If an employee has the vision to be a CTO or founder, you develop that vision by sharing where they can continue to grow. If an employee hasn't expressed any career goals, encourage practices to sustain them where they are in their career.

Here are some examples.

This performance review was for employees coming into their first tech lead project.
This performance review was for an employee that had many responsibilities to deliver.

The final component of the performance review discusses role expectations for the next review cycle. I like to summarize the top team projects and work the employee is responsible for so they know what to expect. Ideally, the work has natural opportunities for growth that were outlined in the previous component of the performance review. This allows them to plan for the work. If they'd like to pursue and target growth opportunities, it is naturally built into the work, and they can lean into behaviors that will grow their skills. If not, the work will be done, and the impact will be reported in the next review cycle.

Example performance review discussing work expectations.
Example performance review discussing work expectations.

If performance reviews are upcoming, let your team know how you plan to submit the review. Some cycles of performance reviews include 360 feedback from peers on the individual, and some don’t. You might want to invite the employees to self-review ahead of time. There might be project deadlines, and employees should feel able to set aside time to chat about their performance. It’s important to leave yourself with some time in case you leave out any important details, or an employee disagrees with what is written.

Once you’ve prepared a performance review that covers the employee’s accomplishments, opportunities, and expectations, you have all the pieces, and now it’s time to put them together. I like to share a document with the text ahead of time to allow employees to digest any feedback ahead of time. If you’re reviewing a performance document, perhaps for your performance review, I would request any missing details to be added during this time.

The performance conversation is for the employee. I share what I have prepared in sections to listen for anything that stands out to the employee. They may express a desire to tackle a project, skill, or opportunity, especially when it’s all organized in a performance review.

That’s it! I shared what I like to do for performance reviews in the hope they’ll be worthwhile conversations. It’s been a meaningful experience getting to run my fourth set of performance reviews this way and to see professional and personal development become a pillar to who we are, what we do, and why we exist as a team. It’s work that matters, and I’m proud to represent that.

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Tiffany Jachja

Software engineering manager covering topics on software, personal development, and career.