Tips for Technical Managers on Writing Better Employee Reviews

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At Cappex.com, we do formal employee reviews twice a year and being that it's already May, I'm starting to think about writing reviews for folks on my team. I don't particularly enjoy writing them (does anyone?) and while there's a lot of noise out there about increasing number of companies getting rid of their formal review process, I think formal employee reviews do play an important role. Even though I hold 1-on-1 meetings with my direct reports at least once every 2 weeks and provide them with regular feedback, I think formal written reviews are helpful in that they summarize someone's performance over the course of 6 months and highlight items that are noteworthy--both good and bad.

I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on writing more effective employee reviews. I hope you'll find these tips to be helpful.

Take notes

I have horrible memory and your memory might not be as good as you think it is. With 10 people on my team and 5 of them being my direct reports, there is absolutely no way that I can remember even half of their memorable accomplishments and shortcomings over the course of 6 months. So I take notes on my direct reports throughout the year. I obviously don't write everything down (it would take too long and I've got much better things to do with my time) but I do jot down items that are at least somewhat significant--both positive and negative. While I encourage folks on my team to keep a log of their own accomplishments on an ongoing basis, I've learned that most people simply aren't going to do a consistent job of this. When I write my reviews, I refer back to my notes and they are always incredibly helpful. In fact, I could not write my reviews without my notes.

Another benefit to taking notes on your employees - it enables me to write reviews with a lot of specifics and details.

Refer to previously written reviews

When writing reviews for folks on my team who have been through at least 1 review cycle, I will always refer to the most recent review for the employee. Sometimes I will go back to previous 2 or 3 reviews. This allows me to go back in time and get a better sense of what sort of progress the employee has made. It allows me to see what the employee has done in tackling her areas of improvement. Without referring back to previously written reviews - I simply am not going to be able to recall most of this information.

Write it in the 2nd person

When I was writing employee reviews 6 months ago, I asked myself why is it that employee reviews are always written in the 3rd person. I'm pretty sure that every single employee review I have received and have given have been written in the 3rd person form. After thinking it over for some time and realizing that there is no good reason as to why I should write them in the 3rd person, I decided to write them in the 2nd person. Even though employee reviews are read by folks other than just my direct reports, my direct reports are to whom these reviews are primarily addressed to. Reviews written in 2nd person are more direct and personal and I believe that this subtle shift in tone had a positive impact on how my reviews were received by my direct reports during my previous review cycle.

Remember who else will be reading these reviews

While my direct reports are the primary target audience of the reviews I write, I keep in mind that these reviews will be read by several others in the business (CEO, HR, etc.) who have very little to no clue about what it is that your team members actually do 9 to 5. I see employee reviews as being a vital tool in informing others regarding the contributions folks on my team have made over the course of the past 6 months. Don't include items in reviews that non-technical folks simply won't understand. While you should absolutely include technical accomplishments of your direct reports on their reviews, describe them in such a way that non-technical folks will be able to understand.

It matters

And lastly - I would encourage and challenge you to put a lot of thought into writing your reviews. Your direct reports will read through their review and if they're anything like me, they'll read through it 2 or 3 times. Take advantage of an awesome opportunity you have to be able to better inform your direct reports how they are performing and how they can take their work to the next level.

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