PEOPLE OPS PLAYBOOK

How to write a performance review

The latest HR research shows that forward-thinking companies are moving away from top-down, annual performance reviews.

An annual job review just isn’t enough to give employees meaningful feedback. Moreover, organizations like Microsoft, Adobe, and Deloitte found that traditional performance ranking processes often led to bias — and that tying raises and dismissals to performance conversations shifted the focus away from development. (1)

This thinking is echoed by teams. According to a recent Leapsome study, a full one-third of employees are not satisfied with their company’s review process, especially if they only get an annual job review. Team members are asking for more regular, more effective ways of reviewing performance — and modern, people-first organizations need to listen. (2)

So how can we enable our leaders to run more flexible, frequent evaluation processes — and write performance reviews for employees based on their individual strengths, goals, and needs?

This guide will cover exactly what a great evaluation looks like — and give you clear steps on how to build a performance review process that gives teams the feedback they need to thrive. You can use it as a primer for your own review processes, or share it with managers and teams who need guidance and structure to write performance appraisals. 

1. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 2023

2. Leapsome Workforce Trends Report, 2023

💪 Performance reviews can be rewarding when done right

Leapsome empowers you to deliver meaningful, effective reviews that develop your talent and boost feelings of belonging.

👉 Learn more

What is a performance review?

An employee performance review — also known as a performance evaluation or appraisal — is a structured assessment, in which managers provide feedback to individual employees on their work and contributions over a certain time period. 

During performance reviews, managers generally: 

  • Evaluate employee strengths and areas of growth, often tied to a competency framework
  • Share actionable steps for improvement
  • Ensure alignment with company goals
  • Communicate role, project, and team expectations
  • Celebrate efforts and achievements 

It’s important to understand the range of evaluation types — annual vs quarterly performance reviews will cover different things, and formal assessments take a very different approach to informal feedback. 

Here are the main differences.

What is an annual review?

These are your traditional, formal yearly reviews at work. They assess employee performance over the full year and often determine promotions, compensation changes, and development plans.

What is a quarterly performance review?

These let managers give more timely input on performance at the end of each three-month period. They’re opportunities to recognize hard work, improvements, and development over the quarter, and a chance for early course-correcting if employees are off track.

What is an informal performance review vs a formal performance review?

An informal performance review is a discussion between an employee and their manager that doesn’t follow a strict performance review structure. In an informal review, the manager will discuss with the employee how they are doing in their role, provide general feedback, and maybe even set goals — but it is not a comprehensive evaluation of performance over a set period.

In contrast, a formal review is a structured, pre-scheduled meeting where the manager documents and evaluates the employee’s performance over a set period, often using pre-set criteria and key performance indicators (KPIs).

However, the difference between formal and informal reviews isn’t always clear cut. More and more companies are looking to make even structured review processes more flexible, informal, and continuous. Recent research on performance management trends shows that IBM now runs simpler, more frequent reviews, while Netflix eliminated bureaucratic, paperwork-led performance evaluations and introduced people-centered appraisals.

Regular performance check-ins can make development and improvement conversations flow naturally, all year round.

Why performance feedback is important 

When run effectively, modern performance reviews:

  • Help employees reach their potential through learning and development
  • Improve employee engagement
  • Promote company culture
  • Identify and resolve issues early on
  • Set clear, achievable goals employees can get excited about
  • Show employees that managers are invested in their development
  • Encourage open, honest communication between managers and direct reports

The purpose of performance reviews is shifting away from a focus on pre-defined rankings and compensation decisions. Now, the overarching goal is to open up dialogues that center on understanding employee experiences to support growth and development. That’s why it’s important for managers to provide well-rounded feedback on performance, including reinforcing as well as constructive comments. 

Companies need to see reviews as a key part of their overarching employee engagement model that contributes to employee satisfaction and well-being. 

Here’s how Claude Silver, leading Chief People Officer/Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia, sees it:  

“We are in the middle of a revolution where we talk about such things as top-line growth, KPIs, and performance reviews in the same breath as psychological safety, mental/emotional health, wellness programs and so much more.

Let’s remember we are all motivated by similar things — growth, time, feeling safe, money, autonomy, achievement…”

What does an effective performance review look like?

The revolution can’t come soon enough. Performance reviews still have a poor reputation among managers, employees, and people ops leaders. According to Gallup, only 14% of employees strongly agree that their appraisals motivate them to improve. Most complaints boil down to managers writing reviews without empathy or consideration for their report’s job description. In fact, only about 29% of employees feel the feedback they receive in reviews is accurate and fair. 

Textio language research found that women and BIPOC individuals are even more likely to receive low-quality and unactionable feedback than their white male counterparts. 

Best practice employee reviews require empathy as well as a genuine desire to help employees grow and develop in their careers. Reviews shouldn’t focus on punishing lower-performing employees and rewarding high-achievers. The best performance review process is one that meets every team member where they’re at and provides growth-centered individual goals and feedback.

A well-designed performance appraisal form helps with employee retention, motivation, and morale. 

Good reviews:

  • Use clear, concise, and empathetic language
  • Take the employee’s feelings and personality into consideration  
  • Focus on past and future performance
  • Include feedback opportunities for both the manager and the employee
  • Invite peers and other managers to take part in the process for well-rounded perspectives
  • Align with overall company values
🚀 Deliver performance reviews that support employee engagement 

Leapsome’s review tools let you celebrate your people and invest in their development.

👉 Learn more
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Wann Sie dieses Playbook verwenden sollten

When to use
this playbook

This playbook aims to help managers write productive employee reviews that are transparent, fair, and growth-focused. People ops/HR professionals can also use this playbook to guide their people (especially first-time managers) on delivering great feedback via performance reviews.

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Was Sie für dieses Playbook benötigen

What you’ll need for
this playbook

A system of mutual growth and development

A culture that supports growth and development shows employees how feedback can help them improve. Companies that support employee growth will take time to understand their people’s career goals and provide development and training resources to help them achieve those goals.

A transparent and fair environment 

A transparent environment helps employees trust that performance reviews will be used for their development, and not for punishment. It encourages reports to engage in the review process.

HINTS & TIPS
Hinweise & Tipps
  • Consider implementing the practice of radical candor within your organization. This approach empowers employees and managers alike by encouraging them to balance empathy and clarity when giving constructive feedback in the workplace.

How to run this People Ops Playbook:

Wie Sie dieses People Ops Playbook durchführen:

Writing a performance review that’s transparent, fair, and growth-focused is a challenge — but it’s hugely important for employee morale, motivation, and engagement. Our playbook provides a framework that will help any leader rise to that challenge by making reviews meaningful. 

Use these six key steps and learn how to write a performance review based on performance insights and employee-centered feedback.

🌟 Looking for best-practice performance review questions? 

Drive meaningful conversations and growth with Leapsome’s free employee review question template. 

👉 Download now

1. Review your report’s current job description

Start by integrating your employee’s job description into the performance review framework, to make sure you’re working from an accurate picture of their intended responsibilities. This helps to avoid incorrect or unfair assessments.

It also gets everyone on the same page, drives transparency, reduces employee stress, and increases morale.

2. Review past performance review data

Check past data like previous feedback and notes from 1:1 meetings to highlight where your report has improved, where they still need help, and where their performance is declining. This is not to punish them, but to follow their progress and provide support.

If this isn’t an employee’s first performance appraisal at your company, look at past reviews to gauge their overall performance, growth, and areas for improvement. Using a people management tool like Leapsome makes this step much easier. Also, documenting feedback is a great way to measure employee growth and performance for future reviews. Using a people enablement tool like Leapsome makes this step much easier, as you’ll have previous review reports, performance analytics, cross-team competency frameworks, and timelines at your fingertips.

3. Reflect on the aim of employee reviews

Reflect on your reason for writing performance appraisals in the first place. Are you writing a performance review specifically to decide who to reward or promote — or to understand your employees’ holistic development and growth? Or is your goal to understand how each staff member contributes to your overall company objectives?

Understanding the aim of evaluations will help you stay focused on providing a valuable experience to your employees while uncovering the best ways to improve the company.

4. Discuss your aim with your report

Once you’re clear on your motivations, help your employees understand the why behind their appraisal. Be clear that a key focus here is their development.

Development-centric reviews encourage a growth mindset and enable your people to take ownership of their careers. Instead of having staff members become frustrated with not meeting certain standards, motivate them by:

  • Asking them how they want to grow and what they think they need to do to get there
  • Encouraging them to share their future goals
  • Investing in personalized learning paths
  • Discussing and tracking their OKRs to support their ongoing development

And before you start your performance review, you may also want to clarify the following with your employees for full transparency: 

  • Who writes the reviews
  • Which areas they’ll be evaluated in
  • How they’ll be evaluated
  • What type of questions will be asked

5. Write objectively

How can you phrase your performance reviews to convey feedback clearly and accurately?

  • Consider gathering feedback from the report’s peers and indirect manager to complement your own. This way, you avoid being their sole evaluator and have the chance to consider issues from various perspectives.

  • Rely on your observations and gather examples and tangible evidence.

  • Use performance checklists whenever possible. Using a list can help you evaluate the employee on a skill-by-skill basis and think critically about areas of improvement. 
  • Get inspired with expert-backed performance review phrases that will help you decide what to write in performance evaluation processes. Learning from performance review best practices is a great way to take stock of your own approach and make sure you’re giving truly helpful feedback. ‍

💡 Read our playbook on how to give constructive feedback to learn more.

6. Send out & discuss the reviews

You can hand out documents or printed versions of performance reviews, but the most effective and time-saving method (which will also help you analyze results) is to use a performance management tool like Leapsome.

And if you’re carrying out your employee appraisal in person or via video conference, use your performance review document to guide your conversation. You can even send it out to your report in advance so they can take a closer look at their strengths and areas for improvement and prepare any relevant questions.

Screenshot of Leapsome's Performance Reviews dashboard showing analytics on key competencies for different team members‍
Once you’ve written your performance reviews, you can compare core competencies and see which teams and individuals need extra support

Why performance feedback is important: what a great performance review can achieve

A development-focused appraisal can guide your people in the right direction and show your commitment to their development. Some other benefits of an effective performance review include: 

  • Guiding employees as they grow and develop their skills. This helps improve their work performance, benefiting their career growth and the company’s overall success.

  • Encouraging managers to get to know their reports better. Understanding people’s strengths and areas for development helps guide managers on the tasks they assign to their team members and why.
  • Helping employees understand organizational expectations and standards. Giving feedback on performance drives alignment and ensures employees and leaders are on the same page about individual objectives as well as company goals.
  • Improving the working relationship and encouraging honest and transparent communication between employees discourages unhealthy competition.
  • Making it easier for employees to ask for help, voice their opinions, and be confident about the value they bring to the company.

You should not use employee reviews to…

  • Punish employees for poor performance. Identifying improvement potential doesn’t equal failure and it’s much better to use reviews for development, not judgment.

  • Only examine an employee’s most recent performance. Instead, focus your reviews for employees on their actions during the entire review period and identify trends between previous cycles to get a better picture of their development.

  • Offer one-off feedback. Alternatively, follow up on each job performance evaluation to keep the momentum going, offer next steps, and ensure the objectives you discussed aren’t forgotten.
  • Rank employees against each other, which creates unhealthy competition and resentment between teammates.
✨ Need more performance review help? 

Our performance review cheat sheet will level up your process in just 2 minutes.

Skills to assess during a performance review

Skills and qualities you should pay attention to during employee reviews include:

  • Communication 
  • Teamwork
  • Ingenuity and creativity 
  • Self-confidence 
  • Kindness and respectfulness 
  • Adaptability
  • Eye for detail 
  • Responsibility 
  • Being process-driven
  • Time management
  • Productivity and quality of work
  • Attendance and engagement 
  • Punctuality 
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership skills

How to give a performance review: 9 key tips 

Giving a performance review that’s well-thought-out and actionable strengthens your team. Thoughtful, detailed feedback on employee performance provides a valuable opportunity not only to evaluate the past but to support each team member’s long-term potential.

Here are our top nine tips on how to give an employee review that builds trust, sparks development, and keeps your talent energized and engaged.

1. Turn the review process into an open conversation

Performance reviews should be a dialogue as opposed to a lecture. That way, you can continuously clarify your understanding of issues, discuss improvement opportunities, and showcase your commitment to your report’s professional development. This creates a culture of transparency and trust and turns an otherwise intimidating process into a collaborative one. 

Some questions that invite discussion include:

  • Have I understood this situation correctly? 
  • What do you think about what I’ve just shared?
  • Do you think my assessment of this situation is fair?
  • Could you help me understand this issue more clearly?
  • This is how I view the current circumstances. What are your thoughts?
  • What do you think about that?
  • What do you think you can do to improve in this area?
  • How can we best support you?

And remember: be empathetic when writing reviews. We’re all human and make mistakes.

2. Ask employees to write self-assessments

A photograph of a person sitting behind a desk, working on their laptop.

Self-assessments encourage employees to take an active part in their appraisals

Completing self-assessments ensures your reviews are collaborative rather than top-down. They can give you a better understanding of your reports’ perspective and help you empathize with them. Finally, they make your people feel more engaged, confident, and empowered within their roles. 

Here are a few other ways to make sure employees are actively involved in their performance reviews:

  • Encourage them to include specific examples of their strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Offer them a chance to reflect on past performance and proud moments.
  • Ask them to share future development goals.
  • Consider running a 360° review and asking employees to recommend coworkers who can give different perspectives on their work
🚀 Need help with performance reviews that involve multiple stakeholders? 

Check out our playbook on how to run a 360° review that makes an impact. 😉

3. Disclose if reviews affect salary raises & layoffs

Good performance reviews help your people feel both supported and challenged. But in many organizations, evaluations are part of the criteria for salary and promotion assessments, which gives them an almost reproachful nature.  

And since decoupling employee evaluation and compensation isn’t always realistic, it’s important to communicate their link and its effect on your people. This fosters transparency and psychological safety. 

In your review, use your compensation plan as a guide to talk about any relevant salary raises, salary increments, professional growth opportunities, or layoffs.

4. Run performance reviews frequently

Holding performance review meetings only once or twice a year creates unnecessary stress for your employees and blocks them from making continuous improvements

We recommend conducting monthly or quarterly evaluations to build a dynamic feedback culture and mitigate issues before they become tricky to resolve. This way, you can better understand your people, boost engagement, and clarify individual and company goals.

5. Start with areas for improvement

Don’t save constructive feedback for the end of your appraisals. Talking about areas of growth right after highlighting strengths distracts employees from their wins. Instead, begin performance reviews by describing the issues that need to be addressed. Detail the situation and its impact, and present your perspective while listening to your team member’s side of the story.

Remember, for many people, constructive feedback still carries a negative — or even accusatory — connotation, instead of encouraging growth. So, if possible, get it out of the way first.

And always conclude your reviews on a positive note by showing your report you recognize and appreciate their contributions to the team and wider organization.

6. Give specific examples

Feedback is only meaningful and actionable when followed by examples that outline the “what,” “when,” and “where” of the situation. Vague feedback is not only ineffective, but can also be perceived as judgmental and biased. As such, it’s more likely to make the recipient feel defensive instead of helping them improve. 

So, mention examples of when the team member did something well and when they didn’t — and don’t forget to provide context. Saying, “I feel sometimes you invest too much time scheduling meetings on less important topics,” isn’t precise enough. Specify instances where this happened to make it clear that your feedback isn’t a personal attack.

Interested in reading more feedback and performance review examples? Our guide to 27 employee feedback examples & the right way to use them has got you covered.

7. Keep your biases in check

Be aware that by conducting a review, you’re effectively judging someone. And judgments are vulnerable to biases because humans are innately biased. A biased review is an incorrect assessment of someone’s performance and helps no one.

To help reduce your bias, do a bias reduction exercise before writing a review to prime your cognitive system and stay alert.

💡 Check out our step-by-step playbook on how to avoid bias in performance reviews to learn more.

8. Choose your words with care

Avoid accusatory language, generalizations, and “you” statements when reflecting on your report’s assessment period. Instead, give specific examples of what did or didn’t go well.

And be mindful that no matter how accurate your comments are and how much context you provide, your assessment of another person’s work still reflects your opinion. So be honest about that fact and use sentences like “I feel that…” and “I think that…” to show empathy and open up a conversation.

9. Tie feedback to actionable tips

Sharing areas for improvement without providing next steps and key takeaways will leave employees feeling lost and unmotivated. So, when sharing constructive feedback, always make actionable recommendations.

Constructive feedback is a way to foster trust, ownership, and collaboration between employees. 

  • Destructive feedback looks like this: “You should fix your data analysis.”
  • Constructive feedback looks like this: “Have you tried to visualize the data to see if there are gaps in your analysis? You can use Google Charts for that. And a pie chart may be better to visualize than a line chart.”
🤝 Need support? 

Leapsome’s AI-powered review tools seamlessly transform manager feedback into constructive comments and a clear action plan.

👉 Explore more
Screenshot of Leapsome's AI-powered performance review sumamries and action plans
AI-powered tools can help leaders provide actionable suggestions that spur employee growth and development

Follow-up: what to do after writing reviews for employees

After writing a review for an employee, you’ll need to schedule a meeting to ensure your feedback is received as it was intended and to create a joint action plan.

Have a development talk with your report

Schedule a time to go through the review. Communicate clearly, be empathetic, and let your report know you’re available to answer questions — during and after the development talk. If you feel it’s needed, remind them their work is not a reflection of their worth and can be improved.

You should also use this time to create a development plan for and with your employee to guide their growth. It’s a good idea to prepare for this talk by researching courses and other learning resources to recommend to your report. You can also use a tool like Leapsome to set up individualized learning paths — and take advantage of our learning marketplace with gold-standard employee development and legal compliance courses by Ethena and lawpilots.

Document employee reviews 

Document reviews in a centralized place (like a people management tool). This way, writing future reviews, tracking progress, and creating a learning plan for your report will be much easier.

Share regular feedback

Don’t only share feedback during reviews. Continuous feedback makes you more than a manager, turning you into a coach for your reports. Also, when you give feedback on an ongoing basis, your constructive comments won’t catch employees by surprise.

💡“People want to know on an ongoing basis, ‘Am I doing right? Am I moving in the right direction? Do you think I am progressing?’ Nobody’s going to wait for an annual cycle to get that feedback.”

Pierre Nanterme, former CEO of Accenture

 

Deliver impactful, growth-oriented performance reviews with Leapsome

Screenshot of Leapsome's integrated employee enablement tools including reviews, surveys, goals, learning and compensation modules
Leapsome’s all-in-one people enablement platform closes the loop between performance management, employee engagement, and learning

Leapsome’s review tools let organizations empower their managers to deliver meaningful employee evaluations that inspire their people. Automated feedback cycle reminders support your leaders in giving regular reviews. They’ll be able to easily access crucial context for each performance assessment, with integrated feedback records, role-based competency frameworks, past evaluations, meetings, goals, and learning tools.

Managers can then use expert-backed templates and AI-powered features to turn rough thoughts into nuanced, actionable review comments — and watch their employees thrive. 

Take a look at the video below to see how you can empower managers to run great performance reviews.

🤝 Make your review process as unique as your people 

With Leapsome, it only takes a few clicks to create customized reviews tailored to specific role and competency frameworks, performance insights, past feedback, and development goals. 

👉 Book a demo
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Frequently Asked Questions

Are employee performance reviews confidential?

Employees should have a right to the confidentiality of their employee reviews. Results should be kept between the manager and the report; however, managers may want to discuss it with people ops/HR or their own manager if they have concerns. This may be necessary, but should be done respectfully.

What questions should I ask in an employee review?

What are the main mistakes with employee performance reviews?

  • Rating quantity over quality because quantity is easier to measure (this is called expediency bias);
  • Not having a firm objective in place before reviewing employees;
  • Not giving actionable feedback;
  • Focusing only on weaknesses;
  • Overwhelming the reviewee with too much information.

How often should employees get a performance review?

Besides running biannual 360° performance reviews for all employees, we recommend that you support new hires with structured feedback during their probation period (e.g., at 2 and 5 months for a 6-month probation period).

Should employee reviews be anonymous?

Performance appraisal feedback can be anonymous, but allowing for non-anonymous feedback gives people the chance to follow up.

Who should write an employee review?

Having only one respondent can lead to poor judgment. For a more accurate measure of employee performance, we recommend a holistic approach where peers, managers, and customers/partners review the same person. Some companies don’t include external contributors.

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