Tips for Effective Employee Performance Reviews [4 HR Experts Weigh In]

Published: 2020/11/17 | Updated: 2021/11/17 | Helen Poliquin
Employee performance reviews

We all know that employees yearn for constructive performance reviews. We also know that managers often find feedback hard to give. The fact is, whether it comes in the form of a positive evaluation or constructive criticism, reviewing performance is key to employee engagement, development and the growth of your business. In a survey from Zenger and Folkman, 69% of employees said they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognized.

Then came the global pandemic. Even if you are a seasoned manager and a pro at conducting performance reviews, everything changed in 2020. Business may be suffering, and at the very least you’ve probably had to reassess goals and expectations. Your team might be working from home, and that work has almost certainly been impacted. How do you effectively conduct a performance review or reassess compensation and benefits when all expectations, stability, and normalcy have gone out the window? For tips on how to review performance in light of all of these obstacles, we spoke with four experts in human resources and performance management.

Are performance reviews effective?

There is plenty of debate about whether companies should be conducting performance reviews at all this year, given the circumstances. Many managers feel they should have check ins with their teams now more than ever. Others have always seen annual performance reviews as ineffective, wasteful, and counterproductive, even during a good year. What is the purpose of performance reviews?

JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf
JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf

Founder of Manage Global, Speaker & Author

Trains managers to improve their personal and organizational effectiveness using behavioral science

I see performance management in a more organic, natural way. Weekly cycles of team meetings that facilitate activities to results is, in itself, the most effective form and practice of performance management. I’ve been a proponent for some time that formal performance management, as we know it and practice it, should be reconsidered. My clients use weekly cycles tied to specific business objectives because it’s a way of practically leveraging simple human behavior science.

Wendy Dailey
Wendy Dailey

Talent Strategist at Sanford Health, Writer & Podcast Host

Over 20 years of experience improving workplace procedures to boost morale and productivity

I am, personally, not a fan of the traditional performance evaluation. Typically these reviews focus too much on the past. I had one where my manager admitted that most of my areas for improvement were things we had already discussed and improvement had been made, but because the review was for the past year they had to be discussed again. It left me feeling deflated as if none of the improvements I had made even mattered. You should have regular touch bases with your employees, talk about issues as they arise and then, unless things don’t change, don’t bring them up again.

Sarah Morgan
Sarah Morgan

CEO of BuzzARooney LLC & Senior Director of HR

A leading voice in HR on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Coach, consultant, speaker and podcast host

Performance reviews are not the same as the check-ins managers should be doing with their teams during this time. Because of the pandemic and the change for many to remote work, it is more important than ever that managers talk with the people who report to them about how they are doing as people, not as employees. This should be separate from the performance review process.

I also believe that performance reviews should continue as normal. For many employees, sadly, their annual review is the only time they get specific feedback about their performance and discussion about goal setting and development. Removing that simply because we are in a pandemic is unfair to the employee, who is usually hungry and anxious to hear this feedback.

Should the impact of COVID-19 figure into performance reviews?

What we had all hoped would be a short-lived inconvenience has significantly altered our way of living and working for many months. So, how should you factor that into your next performance appraisal? Do you only evaluate up until the pandemic began? Do you assess work done at home with the same standards as that done at the office?

Heather Younger
Heather Younger

Founder & CEO of Employee Fanatix

Advocate for change and more effective leadership practices that also drive business results

Managers should absolutely take COVID-19 into consideration with employees given the psychological and emotional implications of the pandemic. Managers, partnering with team members, need to adjust the goals for the performance review to make sure they are fair and achievable given new limitations. Employees can be evaluated through the pandemic, but the manager might be looking at softer skills like teamwork, communications, conflict resolution, etc. Managers will need to adjust what they review and should do so in partnership with their human resources department and their team members.

Sarah Morgan
Sarah Morgan

CEO of BuzzARooney LLC & Senior Director of HR

A leading voice in HR on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Coach, consultant, speaker and podcast host

I recommend evaluating the employee up until the pandemic. Most of us switched into a new mode of working very quickly and without a lot of planning or support, resulting in hiccups with our work product. These are not normal circumstances. It would be unfair to the employee and to the manager rating the employee to try to assess performance for that time period in the current review. Now that a few months have passed it is likely that those working from home have found a better routine and managers have reset expectations. Now, evaluating the work done at home is a more reasonable choice. However, it should still be noted in the evaluation that these times are unusual.

JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf
JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf

Founder of Manage Global, Speaker & Author

Trains managers to improve their personal and organizational effectiveness using behavioral science

Actually, through the lens of effective management, all situations all the time should be considered. There are always things happening within a team. Within weekly management cycles new situations are considered and planned for as goals / outcomes are identified. I wrote a blog post that suggests that, no matter what’s happening, the fundamentals of successful management don’t change.

How can managers fairly assess the work of employees with varied circumstances?

Both managers and employees are facing diverse and unique struggles. Some are home-schooling their children full time, caring for elderly family members, or even dealing with their own illness. How can managers reasonably compare performance and provide feedback given these distinct situations?

Wendy Dailey
Wendy Dailey

Talent Strategist at Sanford Health, Writer & Podcast Host

Over 20 years of experience improving workplace procedures to boost morale and productivity

First, you shouldn’t be comparing your employees during an assessment. You should be evaluating them based on their work, your expectations as addressed to them, and how well they have done. Especially now, this is so important because we all have different home environments that we had to quickly adjust.

Sarah Morgan
Sarah Morgan

CEO of BuzzARooney LLC & Senior Director of HR

A leading voice in HR on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Coach, consultant, speaker and podcast host

The best way to be fair-minded…is to be fair-minded. That means looking at the individual circumstances of each employee and asking, “what level of performance is reasonable to expect, given these circumstances?” That answer may be slightly different for employees dealing with some of the issues mentioned. We have to get comfortable with this. Fairness doesn’t equal sameness.

Also, I want to note that just because an employee is young or childless doesn’t mean that they will not have difficulty coping while working during the pandemic. Many people who live alone are struggling with the inability to have social contact with others, resulting in depression and other mental health challenges. Young and / or childless people still have friends, family, and loved ones that they may be responsible for, or who they simply miss terribly because the pandemic has left them so alone and isolated. We must be empathetic and compassionate toward everyone.

Heather Younger
Heather Younger

Founder & CEO of Employee Fanatix

Advocate for change and more effective leadership practices that also drive business results

The most important skill that a manager can have right now is empathy. If we put ourselves in other people’s shoes, then fairness is easier to land on. Right now, managers will make or break the relationships they have with those they lead. It is tough work. Nonetheless, we have to meet people where they are, in their shoes, and take time to problem solve around their individual needs.

JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf
JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf

Founder of Manage Global, Speaker & Author

Trains managers to improve their personal and organizational effectiveness using behavioral science

When you work within teams, and are effective at team management, you create a team culture in which everyone feels that they are in it together. There is an attitude and atmosphere of collective support and understanding. I call it Team EQ (emotional intelligence). This diminishes the possibility for competition and resentment to arise. With weekly collective collaboration towards goals and results everyone makes collective agreements to achieve specific outcomes. There is also flexibility on how they are achieved. The focus is on results rather than volume of activity.

How is employee performance measured and managed when working from home?

When employees work from home, certain information may be “lost”, particularly for companies unaccustomed to remote work. It can be tricky when managers and employees are no longer working shoulder to shoulder, chatting over lunch, or engaging face to face. What alternative sources of information can managers use? What new types of data should they use in a review of performance?

Sarah Morgan
Sarah Morgan

CEO of BuzzARooney LLC & Senior Director of HR

A leading voice in HR on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Coach, consultant, speaker and podcast host

Managers should be evaluating performance using as much objective, metrics-based data as possible in all circumstances. Other than visibly being able to see the person while they are working, I am unsure what metrics cannot be obtained from the individual whether they are working at home or in a traditional office. If the pandemic revealed that this was lacking from the evaluation process, the manager should focus on setting up these metrics rather than looking for new ways to evaluate virtual work. Trying to evaluate virtual work performance alone often leads managers to falsely believe that they can’t manage the person without having eyes on them, which then leads to unnecessary camera-based meetings or returning to the physical office before recommended or necessary.

Heather Younger
Heather Younger

Founder & CEO of Employee Fanatix

Advocate for change and more effective leadership practices that also drive business results

I think this depends on the type of business. If they have re-evaluated goals then they can probably use the sources they used before, but adjust downward. Also, this time requires that managers pay more attention to untrackable types of behavior to determine maturity, readiness for promotion, etc.

Should performance reviews always be conducted face to face?

Some businesses may conduct performance assessments once employees are back at the office, but this won’t be possible for all. What considerations should managers have in mind if reviews can’t be done in person? Is email or a phone call an acceptable alternative, or should performance reviews always be done via video conferencing?

Wendy Dailey
Wendy Dailey

Talent Strategist at Sanford Health, Writer & Podcast Host

Over 20 years of experience improving workplace procedures to boost morale and productivity

If performance reviews cannot be done in person, video is the next best option, as you are still able to see the employee’s face. Phone would be acceptable and email should be done only as a very last option. I would rather see the reviews completed later than by phone or email.

Heather Younger
Heather Younger

Founder & CEO of Employee Fanatix

Advocate for change and more effective leadership practices that also drive business results

Performance reviews should never be done via email or phone. Neither should layoffs. Managers should do the next best thing and utilize video. The performance review process is an anxiety-producing event for employees. There is too much lost in translation via email and phone.

JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf
JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf

Founder of Manage Global, Speaker & Author

Trains managers to improve their personal and organizational effectiveness using behavioral science

Certainly the best option is visual, for relational rapport. I don’t think email should ever be used. Second to visual would be a phone call. And the key point is, if you’re doing weekly organic performance management feedback, input are naturally ongoing anyway. So something a bit more formal would only be a summary of something that’s already been talked about and addressed. No surprises, just a summary discussion.

How should managers handle reviews for underperforming employees?

Reviews for underperforming employees are never easy, but they’re even trickier to navigate under trying circumstances. They are also, of course, key to actually improve performance. How can leaders offer support and provide concessions without being too permissive and abetting poor performance?

Sarah Morgan
Sarah Morgan

CEO of BuzzARooney LLC & Senior Director of HR

A leading voice in HR on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Coach, consultant, speaker and podcast host

Compassionate candor is the best way to provide feedback to employees who are underperforming. We should note to the person that we’ve observed a drop in their performance and ask if there are any challenges that we can provide support with. We should cite specific examples of issues and negative trends observed, as well as provide objective data to support this if possible. We should let them know that they are failing to meet expectations and, if they’ve said there are no mitigating factors, request that they recommit to being diligent.

If the person does cite issues in their home life, health, etc. that is contributing to their performance issues, we should ask them what would help them. It is important to empower the employee to ask for what they need rather than jumping in to rescue them. If the employee has no immediate suggestions, give them time for self evaluation and set a deadline of when you will follow up to discuss their ideas.

JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf
JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf

Founder of Manage Global, Speaker & Author

Trains managers to improve their personal and organizational effectiveness using behavioral science

The cool thing with organic, natural weekly performance management via team activities and goals is that underperformance is naturally addressed. It’s built into the process. Either the person will be able to respond and contribute to weekly goals, objectives, and outcomes or they won’t. It’s within this weekly cycle that issues will surface to be addressed. They then can be coached forward and up or coached out. Also within a team, there can be a temporary collective agreement regarding needed, legitimate accommodations. It is very poor, ineffective management to allow prolonged, unaddressed underperformance.

Wendy Dailey
Wendy Dailey

Talent Strategist at Sanford Health, Writer & Podcast Host

Over 20 years of experience improving workplace procedures to boost morale and productivity

Is the underperformance recent or something that has been on-going, just not addressed? If it’s new, I think you need to give a little grace and work to figure out why there’s a change in performance. What was your relationship with the employee like before? Is your employee comfortable sharing any troubles that may be preventing them from working to their full capacity? Are there ways you can change how you are supporting that employee to get them back to full performance? If this is an ongoing issue and has been addressed in the past, you still need to address it. It may be harder because you aren’t in the same room, but you cannot let the performance linger.

What long term takeaways do you hope leaders will gain from the events of this year?

Plenty has already been published about the pandemic’s impact on the workplace. While these insights are important, we also want to highlight the more lasting implications of this crisis. How will this change us and the way we work? What lessons can business owners and leaders use to cultivate a healthier, happier, and more engaged and productive workforce?

JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf
JoAnn Corley-Schwarzkopf

Founder of Manage Global, Speaker & Author

Trains managers to improve their personal and organizational effectiveness using behavioral science

One key takeaway is that being attuned to the human needs of a team has never changed. COVID has just made us more aware and more compelling. Another takeaway is that any substantial crisis gives leaders an opportunity to consider what’s more important – to refine operations, be more focused, and strengthen human bonds that transcend a specific place (the office). They now can focus on stronger connections of heart, mind, and spirit. This means that ultimately the most successful leaders will be those whose influence comes from personal influence through rapport and meaningful relating versus positional power. Business operations will be more informal and community oriented than formal and corporate oriented. This is the real business and social shift.

Heather Younger
Heather Younger

Founder & CEO of Employee Fanatix

Advocate for change and more effective leadership practices that also drive business results

There is nothing that will replace the need for employees to feel connected to their managers and coworkers. Managers and leaders will need to continue to check in with their people. Even more now. Leaders need to actively listen and empathize. While they are not therapists, leaders will need to help those they lead work through the many challenges and become more resilient in the process.

Wendy Dailey
Wendy Dailey

Talent Strategist at Sanford Health, Writer & Podcast Host

Over 20 years of experience improving workplace procedures to boost morale and productivity

The key to success during this time has been flexibility, which means different things to everyone. I hope leaders spend time talking to their employees about what works and continue to work with them to make work work.

Sarah Morgan
Sarah Morgan

CEO of BuzzARooney LLC & Senior Director of HR

A leading voice in HR on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Coach, consultant, speaker and podcast host

Work as we knew it before the pandemic is over. The future of work is going to require more agility and flexibility by organizations to adapt and accommodate the needs of employees. I hope the pandemic teaches leaders to look at the employees they lead as whole people with unique needs and motivations. I hope leaders seek to get to know and understand their employees as people, then use that knowledge to provide personal support and develop their employees’ professional potential more consistently than what we have seen in the past.


Strategic details will vary from business to business, but there are some key takeaways that can be universally applied:

  • Stop to consider why you are conducting performance reviews. Your focus this year is probably to reassure and strengthen your team and company culture. The end goals of these reviews will help to dictate how you conduct them and generally give feedback.
  • When you assess an employee you are measuring their success against a goal, but remember that this year the goalposts have shifted. Make sure that your expectations are still realistic.
  • In general, show empathy and compassion. What you do now and how you treat your team will be remembered long after things have returned to normal.
  • Finally, even if your company has chosen to do away with performance reviews in the traditional sense, this advice still holds true for the ongoing feedback and interactions you have with your team.

No matter how you go about it, remember that as a manager this is your chance to rise to the occasion. “We are nowhere close to back to normal or even a new normal,” Sarah Morgan says. “This is very taxing on your employees from a physiological standpoint. We have to be aware of this and on the lookout for employees who may be in distress. We have to encourage employees to rest and take care of themselves. We have to model good behavior as leaders by talking about our stress, our need for rest, etc. All of this is going to have a major impact on our workplaces. We have to stay alert and prepare as much as we can for it.”

Photo by @gabriellefaithhenderson on Unsplash

Managing Inbound and Customer Success at Beebole. Connecting with teams and managers worldwide, identifying their obstacles, and communicating the creative solutions that Beebole can offer. Working remote from the Canary Islands.

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