A performance review is more than just a tedious formality. Done well, performance reviews help your employees to learn and grow, and they also help you to evolve as a manager. Written performance reviews are tricky because employees don't have the benefits of face-to-face interaction to avert misunderstandings and soften language with nonverbal cues such as smiles.

The key to writing an appraisal that encourages and rewards excellent performance is to build a strong relationship with your employee ahead of time to provide context and recourse. To foster excellent performance, make regular feedback an ongoing part of your management style.

Setting the Stage

As a manager, your words and actions have the capacity to lift morale and build employee skills or to create a dysfunctional work environment where distrust and ill will are prevalent. Written performance appraisals don't occur in a vacuum. Rather, they express impressions and dynamics that develop throughout your day-to-day interactions with an employee. Set the stage for an excellent performance review by laying a groundwork of trust and support.

  • Provide feedback as you go along rather than saving your thoughts and surprising your employees with written observations and feedback that would have been useful at an earlier time.

  • Build an atmosphere of openness and goodwill by letting your employees know that you're on their side and that improvement is a win-win outcome.

  • Let employees know that written appraisals are coming soon so they don't feel ambushed.

Writing Excellent Performance Reviews

Excellent performance reviews are formal documents that accurately and constructively reflect ongoing relationships and concerns.

  • Establish a format for writing appraisals, such as a mix of specific and open-ended questions. Specific questions might include, "How has this employee's performance improved?" and "Where is there room for improvement?" Open-ended questions might include, "What else do you want to say to this employee?"

  • Provide examples to back up your observations. It's more useful to say, "You frequently show up late and spend too much time surfing the internet," than to say, "You have a bad attitude."

  • Offer a mix of positive feedback along with identifying areas that will require additional work. Start and end on a positive note whenever possible.

  • Present specific objectives and goals for the future to set the stage for future appraisals and conversations.

Writing Employee Self-Evaluations

Employee self-evaluations are another important part of the appraisal process, providing your staff with the opportunity to formally reflect on their own performance and also to give you feedback on company culture and management style. Although employees often dread writing self-evaluations, you have the capacity as a manager to make the process a meaningful opportunity to receive useful and important information.

As with your written appraisals of your employees, self-evaluations do not occur in a vacuum. Workers who feel that their voices are not heard in the workplace are unlikely to take the self-appraisal process seriously. Workers who trust you and feel that they have your respect are likely to bring this goodwill to the self-evaluation process, providing insights that are actually meaningful.

How to Follow Up

Although written appraisals may be annual or semi-annual events, you should follow up on them regularly or as often as necessary. These follow-up conversations should be more informal and will almost certainly be more effective if they take place in person rather than in writing.

In addition to following up on the feedback you have offered your employees via written appraisals, you should also communicate to them that you're open to hearing follow-up thoughts on the self-evaluations they have written. If there are issues with your workplace culture that have not improved, they should feel safe telling you that. If they do see genuine improvement, you should receive that information as well.