Writing Performance Appraisals


June 2001

Writing Performance Appraisals

CIDMIconNewsletter Diane Davis, Senior Technical Publications Manager, Synopsys, Inc.

Writing performance appraisals is one of the most important tasks that managers perform and often one of the least enjoyable. In a recent interview, Gordon Moore of Intel said that writing performance appraisals was his least favorite task, so you are in good company if you don’t like to write appraisals.

Performance appraisals are written evaluations of an employee’s performance during the review period. The performance appraisal provides constructive feedback to employees about their contributions to the organization as well as about areas where they need to improve. The appraisal focuses on key accomplishments, expectations, and goals, and it provides recognition for contributions. In some companies, the written evaluation is called a performance review. No matter what your company calls it, you still have to write it. How do you make the experience valuable to the individual contributor without making it an unpleasant task for you?

Writing MBOs

The first step is to write good MBOs. MBO stands for management by objectives and is a shorthand way to refer to a goal or objective under this system of management. A good MBO can be defined by the acronym SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Specific means that the objective uses concise wording to clearly define the expected results (but not how to reach them).

Measurable means that there are indicators for success. Objectives with measurement criteria can be evaluated at the end of the performance period.

Achievable means that objectives are attainable within the context of organizational resources, the employee’s expertise, and the time available. Challenge the employee by offering “stretch” objectives.

Relevant means that objectives are aligned with the goals of the department and the company.

Time-bound means that there is a clearly defined time frame for each objective, including a starting point, relevant milestones along the way, and a completion.

You can broadly categorize MBOs as relating to either performance or development. Performance MBOs involve accomplishing tasks or projects, while development MBOs involve acquiring or improving skills.

One of the important keys to writing good MBOs is making sure the employee has bought into the MBO. Find out how your employee sees the priorities of the job and what new skills would be helpful in reaching these objectives. If you can collaborate in arriving at MBOs that dovetail the values and ideas of the employee with your own expectations, you will be viewed as a resource to help the employee succeed, rather than as an authority figure to be feared and placated. Employees who think of you as a resource who is “on their team” throughout the year will not feel threatened by you during the performance appraisal. Make sure to review the objectives during one-on-one meetings to ensure that the performance appraisal, when it occurs, will not be a surprise to the employee.

If you observe behavior that is inappropriate or not conducive to achieving the MBOs, speak to the employee about it as soon as you can to obtain input about the situation and modify the MBOs or the priorities if appropriate. Often it is more realistic to expect incremental changes from an employee who is struggling, rather than a complete turnaround. Take detailed notes about the problem and any changes in the MBOs, and keep your manager informed of the situation.

Defining the Skills Necessary for Success

Part of a performance appraisal involves defining the factors that are necessary for overall success in the particular job. These success factors will vary from company to company and from job grade to job grade within a company. The following are some key success factors I have used:

  • Writing skills
  • Ability to meet deadlines
  • Job knowledge
  • Teamwork
  • Planning skills
  • Customer sensitivity

A common practice is to define various ratings within each success factor. For example, writing skills might be rated as follows:

  • Outstanding-Is able to organize large documentation suites. Writes grammatically correct documentation, adheres to the department style guide, and requires normal editing. Performance consistently far exceeds expectations.
  • Very good-Writes grammatically correct documentation, adheres to the department style guide, and requires normal editing. Performance consistently exceeds normal expectations and job requirements.
  • Meets requirements-Writes grammatically correct documentation, adheres to the department style guide, and sometimes requires extensive editing. Performance consistently meets expectations and job requirements.
  • Does not meet requirements-Performance is below minimum acceptable level.
  • Not performing

When you define writing skills at various levels, consider the scope of the work, the technical difficulty, the specific process requirements, and the amount of management support needed. I use the following criteria for my highest level of technical writer:

  • Works on writing projects of any scope and technical difficulty. Develops documentation plans and product information suites. Works independently on difficult project development responsibilities. Acts as the first line of technical support and technical writing for other department members.
  • Researches content and audience information. Uses specifications, background information, and interviews with customers and subject-matter experts (SMEs) to develop customer profiles and task analyses.
  • Plans the scope, technical level, organization, and delivery medium of product suites to maximize their usefulness to the intended audience.
  • Writes or revises descriptive and procedural documents for Synopsys tools. Delivers documents that meet corporate standards of style, writing quality, and format for online media or paper.
  • Requires minimal editorial support to meet quality goals. Helps define or refine quality standards.
  • Works with the electronic publishing department to ensure the timely publication of high-quality information.
  • Contributes to product core teams, representing the information-development function on matters of product development, information quality, and project schedules.
  • Acts as an early user of the product, providing developers with feedback on product design, usability, terminology, and implementation.
  • Understands most technical information with some assistance. Offers suggestions to improve software product design and user interface.
  • Can design practical examples.

Recognizing the Managers’ Responsibilities

In addition to creating MBOs and providing definitions of success factors and ratings, managers have the following responsibilities when writing performance appraisals:

  • Focus on key accomplishments, expectations, and goals.
  • Recognize contributions and acknowledge good performance.
  • Make appraisals factual.
  • Indicate where improvement is needed.
  • Listen to employees’ views on their performance.

Not only is focusing on accomplishments and contributions more enjoyable for you and the employee, but it is also the most effective management style in terms of motivation and building self-esteem. When you perceive areas of inadequacy, meet with the employee to discuss the situation and to develop a plan of action for improvement. Often employees have valid reasons for doing things in a certain way, or there are extenuating circumstances that you did not consider when preparing a performance appraisal. Getting the employee’s agreement about a problem and a plan of action to correct it is critical to success for both you and the employee.

Effective communication is essential to building a collaborative relationship, so make sure to express your message in a way the employee can relate to. As you prepare to communicate, consider what you know about your employee. Does this person receive information better when there is a diagram or other visual aid? Are there certain words that might make your employee defensive? A performance appraisal is one of those times when the golden rule is helpful: think about how you would like your manager to talk to you.

Recognizing the Employees’ Responsibilities

Just as a manager has responsibilities, so do employees. Employees should do the following:

  • Participate in pre-review data gathering by giving you names of people who can provide input for their performance appraisal.
  • Seek to resolve differences in perception if you provide feedback that they do not agree with.
  • Collaborate with you to develop courses of action to improve performance weaknesses.
  • Make sure that they understand the ratings.

You might want to review the ratings during a staff meeting to make sure that all the people who report to you understand them. If you are unsure of the company position on ratings, review them in advance with your Human Resources (HR) representative, or ask the HR representative to attend your staff meeting. Be sure to allow time for questions and answers during the meeting to help clarify the information.

Writing the Review

Now the real work begins-actually writing the review. Check with your HR Department to find out the following:

  • What the time frames are
  • What forms to use
  • What the various ratings are and what they mean
  • What methods and criteria to use to increase compensation

First, gather data. Use your notes from one-on-one meetings as a source of information. Gather input from other employees, managers, and team leaders. Ask the employee to write a self-evaluation and send it to you. Make sure you have the correct form to write the performance appraisal. Include a job description.

Second, begin writing a draft of the appraisal. Use the sandwich approach-start and end with something good. Put less positive feedback in the middle, but be sure not to bury the feedback. Include the following in your appraisal:

  • The employee’s accomplishments
  • Specific examples for positive and constructive feedback
  • An evaluation of performance relative to objectives
  • New MBOs for the next review period

Think about a situation where the employee performed well. What was it about the performance that impressed you? Be specific about what you liked, and be sure to communicate how much you value the employee’s overall contributions. When you need to give constructive feedback about a problem area, be specific about what you see as the problem as well as suggestions to correct the problem.

Third, set aside time when you will not be disturbed to write the final draft. Break the writing into manageable pieces, and make sure to edit the appraisal when you are done. Compare the appraisal you write with the employee’s self-evaluation to see if you have overlooked any essential information. This comparison will also prepare you to deliver the appraisal when you meet with the employee. If you and the employee are in agreement, delivering the appraisal should be easy. If you are not in agreement, be prepared to respond to the areas of disagreement.

Fourth, after the appraisal is written, follow company procedures. Do you need to have your manager read the performance appraisal before you deliver it to the employee? Does an HR representative need to read the appraisal? Get appropriate signatures if that is part of the process, and fill out all the required forms.

Fifth, schedule a meeting so that you can deliver the appraisal in a quiet, private setting where you will not be interrupted. Schedule enough time for a thorough two-way conversation. Let the employee know how you are going to conduct the meeting, and make sure you cover all the important points. Present information in a non-threatening way. Prepare for the worst, but approach the meeting with the expectation that it will go well. Be sure that you are fair. You and the employee might not agree, but it is nice when the employee walks away feeling that you were fair.

When there are differences of opinion, listen carefully and restate the employee’s perspective to make sure you understand the issues. Identify areas where you agree, and note the areas of disagreement. Allow the employee to provide any new information that might affect the review’s rating. If necessary, postpone the rest of the meeting to give you time to review new information. If you are not able to reach agreement about a problem area, discuss how you will proceed. Ask for help from your manager or your HR representative.

Finally, learn from the process. Did you have enough data? If not, take better notes during one-on-one meetings and include more people as sources of data. Were you nervous? If you were, practice in front of a mirror, your spouse, or a pet. Make sure you are thoroughly prepared for future performance appraisals.

You might not be able to make writing performance appraisals fun, but with the right preparation, at least they won’t be painful. CIDMIconNewsletter

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