Polish What’s Dull, and Wax What Shines

Tips for writing the performance review

For managers, the one activity more dreaded than receiving a performance review is writing one. So it’s no wonder many reviews fall short of their real intention: to provide a springboard for further growth and accomplishment. How can the performance review guide a productive discussion about an employee’s potential or shortcomings? These tips can make writing and conducting a performance review less painful—and more behavior driven—for manager and employee alike.


  Remember the true purpose of a performance review. The review is a vehicle to start a healthy discussion about performance and potential and to guide the employee’s future performance and, possibly, advancement within a firm.


  Create a working file for each of your direct reports. After all, a review does not represent one moment in time. It represents a collection of many. To keep your observations and reviews objective, you’ll need to rely on data. Instead of randomly searching your memory the day before the review is due, design a simple template to record observations and outcomes throughout the year (see Exhibit 1 below).


  Regularly note the impact of an employee’s doing something right—or otherwise. In your working file, document the action and the impact on the person, on the team and on the business. What is the frequency of estimates sent to a client containing inaccuracies that cost the firm time and penalties? Of reports handed in late that delay a key project? Of providing clients with practical and proficient solutions to their tax issues? How well does he or she communicate? Has he or she kept up with continuing education credits, and does he or she contribute productively to meetings?


  Review the employee’s performance in the specific dimensions listed on the performance review by referring to your working file notes as you begin to draft. You can make this easy by setting up your working file according to the categories on the review—for example, Quality of Work, Leadership and Teamwork, Attitude and Engagement, and so on.


  Bottom line the employee’s performance in each category. Then back it up with examples and their impact. For example, “In Quality of Work, Tom’s performance rates a superior mark. This rating is consistently demonstrated by his completion of more than 400 tax filings with no errors. Because of Tom’s accuracy, we were able to not only retain those clients but also benefit from their recommendations that gained us 25 new clients.”


  Encourage “more of” and “less of” behavior that will direct future action. Example for high performance: “Jill’s reconciliations on the ABC account saved us from embarrassing and costly errors. We welcome her continued attention to detail on our upcoming major projects.”


Example for low performance: “Bill’s performance on Leadership and Teamwork Behavior falls below expectations. One example occurred when Bill assigned two junior accountants to project XYZ, not recognizing that they did not possess the requisite skills to succeed and then resisted repeated requests from them for additional training. Bill’s leadership inaction resulted in a significant project delay and overtime costs that could have been avoided. Going forward, Bill needs to develop a realistic sense of his staff’s capabilities and provide the tools and training they need. 


“One way for Bill to accomplish this is to create a matrix of the skills required for the project and map each person’s capabilities along that matrix. Then, he can assign staff to projects based on the compatibility of their skill set to the requirements of the project. When the skill set required for the task doesn’t match, Bill can develop a workaround to complete projects in a timely way. And then he can determine what needs his staff has for future development.”


  Identify approaches to upgrade behaviors and skills that will render the company a better product or service. Such approaches might include special training, classes or peer discussion. By including this step, managers can show their engagement in the success of the employee.


  Prepare for a face-to-face discussion without flaunting your authority. A well-supported, fact-based performance review and discussion lets everyone focus on the behaviors that will direct the company’s long-term growth—and that of its employees. After all, a performance review ought to help everyone involved get ahead—not cause a headache.


Wilma Davidson ( wilma@wilmadavidson.com ) is a member of the faculty at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee. She has been a business writing and presentation skills coach to corporations for more than two decades. Richard D. Easter ( easters@embarqmail.com) is an undergraduate English student at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee. For the past 29 years, he has also been employed at a nuclear power plant where he writes repair directives for site personnel.



To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Matthew G. Lamoreaux, senior editor, at mlamoreaux@aicpa.org or 919-402-4435.

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