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How Do I Write a Performance Review?


A reader from Florida asks:

“How do I write a performance review? My company is growing and while we try to give verbal feedback, I feel the need to get more formal. But I am a bit at a loss about where to start. I need performance review examples and a step-by-step guide. Can you help?”  

  –  Tomas from Miami 

Thanks for your question, Tomas.  As you probably recognize, there is more to conducting an employee performance review than simply writing out a form.

However, the written form is very very important. Why?  It puts structure into performance evaluations. And it tells the employee you think he or she is important, because you’ve taken the time to write out an evaluation.

Unfortunately, many managers and business owners approach performance reviews with as much enthusiasm as a root canal.  So kudos to you for wanting to do a “formal” employee performance review.

Let’s cut to the chase to help you understand how to give an awesome annual review and get the best performance from employees year round. We provide sample phrases and we will link you to a performance review form and completed performance review samples.

How to Prepare for a Performance Review

Think of an employee performance review as a year-long cycle, not a one time event.  After all, your employees don’t just sit “on ice” until a once-a-year event, do they? They are performing. And you are (hopefully) coaching them all year long.

Each year’s cycle culminates in a formal review. But that annual review should reflect what has taken place throughout the year.  It should not be the only time you talk about performance or give feedback.

Here are the 5 stages of the annual performance review cycle.

  • Give regular feedback throughout the year
  • At review time, ask the employee to write a self evaluation
  • You write out a performance review evaluating the employee
  • Conduct the review meeting face to face
  • If you are giving a performance-based compensation increase, communicate it then or shortly afterwards.

Then rinse and repeat each year.

Let’s break it down into more detail under each stage.

1. Give regular feedback throughout the year

If you want good performance all year long, you have to give feedback and provide  coaching regularly throughout the year. Here are some guidelines for giving feedback:

  • Keep feedback verbal most of the time.  Employees will be less fearful and more receptive if you give little bits of feedback on a regular basis.  Don’t make a big production out of giving feedback.
  • Give more positive than negative feedback. What do they say about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? If you want more of something, positive reinforcement works. This doesn’t mean you must avoid correcting or making a critique. Just go out of your way to find positive things to say. Some employers adopt a ratio of 3-to-1 or even 5-to-1 when it comes to  positive over negative feedback.
  • Deliver proactive training, too, not just after-the-fact critiquing. Everyone can benefit from some kind of training – no matter what level of experience or how many years on the job. We all have to sharpen our skills. Sometimes it helps to put down guidelines or instructions in writing, for better retention.

2. Ask the employee to write a self evaluation

As the time for the annual review approaches, ask the employee to complete a self-evaluation. Basically, employees can use the exact same performance evaluation template that you will use to review them.  The employee simply completes a version of the document reflecting on his or her own performance.

The benefits of a self evaluation are powerful:

  • It makes employees more self aware. When an employee has to sit down and reflect on all the categories that he or she is being evaluated on, there will likely be a few private “uh oh” realizatations. Employees start to imagine how they appear in others’ eyes. This makes for a more effective employee in the upcoming year.
  • A self evaluation also instills confidence. When employees consciously reflect on what they’ve achieved, and the good work they’ve done, they will naturally puff up a bit with a sense of pride.  They will go about their jobs with more confidence.
  • A self evaluation could be very illuminating for you, as the boss. You may have forgotten some of the employee’s accomplishments.  And you may start to see things through their eyes better. Working conditions that may negatively affect performance sometimes reveal themselves — conditions you can fix once you learn of them. I’ve often changed my evaluation after reading an employee’s self evaluation.

Annual Performance Review Employee Self Evaluation Examples

Ask the employee to get you their filled-out self evaluation form slightly in advance of your scheduled meeting. A day or two ahead should be enough time to read through the self evaluation.  Don’t forget to give employees time in their workday to complete the self evaluation.

Occasionally an employee has trepidation over filling out the form. Don’t make a big deal out of it.  Remind them that it’s for discussion purposes and not any other reason. You could always just let the employee tell you verbally how they feel about their performance. Don’t let the form be a sticking point.

Check Out Our Performance Review Template

Here is a performance review template that I developed over the years. This shows a sample employee self-evaluation so you can get an idea of sample phrases an employee might use (please save a copy in your own Google Drive or download a copy to your computer, and then you can edit it):


3. Write an employee performance review

Using the performance review template linked to below, complete your own review of the employee.  Take into account their self evaluation for input (because you may learn something new).

I prefer a form that includes a combination of individual attributes or areas where you give a score with a check mark. But you must also write a few sentences underneath each area.  I think it’s important to write some observations, because it shows that you really thought about your employee’s performance, beyond checking off boxes.

Don’t feel you have to go overboard with page after page of written observations.  You’re not writing an essay. Write plainly and to the point, yet couching feedback as positively as possible (even if you are being critical). Save some of your observations for the verbal conversation.  You can adjust tone and meaning more effectively verbally than in writing, anyway.

Employee Performance Review Phrases to Get you Started

A lot of managers wonder what to say in an employee performance review. Here are some sample phrases to give positive feedback:

  • “Great job in several areas”
  • “Very impressed with how you did YZ this year”
  • “You’ve made tremendous progress this year”
  • “You’ve improved so much this year”
  • “I’m really pleased with how VWX is coming along”
  • “You’ve been on fire with ABC”
  • “Nice work on the PQR project”

But of course, be honest.  It’s one thing to emphasize positives.  It’s another thing to fail to give accurate feedback that in the long run will be more valuable to the employee’s career.

Overall Performance Review Phrases

Confront areas needing improvement or where you feel the employee could do better.

Here are some sample negative phrases (but softened so the employee still feels good about himself or herself):

  • “This year I’d like to see you work on D and E more”
  • “I’d like to see you bring the same enthusiasm to G as you do for H, where you’re very effective.”
  • “You pay a lot of attention to detail in EFG, but I’d like to see you temper that by moving a bit faster. Balance the two.”
  • “I think if you set your mind to it, you could accomplish a lot in the area of RST”
  • “Project LMN could have gone a little smoother by emphasizing planning. Planning is something I’d like to see you work on this coming year.”
  • “You’re so good when you do AB, we really need you bringing that same attitude to the table for CD.”

The performance review template I recommend has a section for accomplishments on last year’s goals.  And it has a place to set a few goals for the upcoming year.

Goals are perhaps the most important part of the annual review.  Limit it to no more than five goals per year. No one can focus on a lot of goals. You will just overwhelm the employee.

Goals can be projects or a self improvement target. Simply signal to the employee a few things you consider important for them to do in the coming year. Don’t worry if you feel you left something out.  Even two goals is enough.

More Performance Review Templates

In the sample performance review template, I’ve included some sample goals to trigger a few ideas.  Here is the performance review template with sample phrases. (Please save a copy in your own Google Drive or download a copy to your computer, so you can edit it):


Hold the review meeting face to face

Get together for an hour in a private place. Schedule it in advance. Make it clear to others that you don’t want to be disturbed.  Sit down together, and make the employee comfortable. For instance, you could offer the employee a beverage.

Then talk through your evaluation. Be conversational. Break the ice by emphasizing as many positives as possible up front.  Use really enthusiastic language at the outset to set a positive tone.

4. How to Conduct a Performance Review

Make eye contact and smile.  Talk about the employee’s future with the company or how you’re looking forward to working with him or her this coming year.  That shows you are not planning to terminate your employee. This is very important! You never know what goes through an employee’s mind.

Once you complete your discussion, let the employee take the form and mull it over.  Encourage him or her to come to you with any questions or comments. Ask him or her to sign it and return the form within a couple of days.

One final point: never use an annual performance evaluation as an ambush or a ruse to fire an employee.  The employee should not go into the meeting fearing they will walk out unemployed. If that happens, it means you have not been giving feedback regularly or you did not set up the right expectations for the performance review meeting.

4. Give compensation increase

If your company is one that gives a pay increase as a consequence of an annual review, then you have two options.  You can communicate the increase at the end of the review meeting. Or you can communicate it when the employee returns the signed review form, perhaps a few days later.

State something like, “Thank you for all your hard work. We value what you do and I’m delighted to say we will be increasing your pay to X.”

If performance needs improvement to the degree that an increase is not warranted, then explain that to the employee.  Some managers will ask the employee to improve for say 3 months, and agree to evaluate compensation again at a later date.

Some employers do not give annual pay increases connected with performance reviews.  If that is the case — let’s say you give an annual cost of living increase once a year, or you give year-end profit-sharing bonuses — then presumably your employee already knows that.

As you can see, giving an employee performance review can be a positive and beneficial experience for everyone involved, if done correctly.

Good luck!

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All answers to reader questions come from the Small Business Trends Editorial Board, with more than 50 years of combined business experience. If you would like to submit a question, please submit it here.

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