Rethinking how you communicate about employee reviews

We spoke with Dr. Kerry O’Grady about how you can make reviews really count.

Whether you dread it or see it as a golden opportunity, the employee review is as ubiquitous to the traditional workplace experience as a free pretzel day or casual Friday. But if leaders conduct reviews the right way, they’re not going to do a whole lot for your employees in the long run.

When reviews are a key path to ascending the leadership ladder, how can you talk to your employees about them, and during them,  in an impactful way? How can managers help build culture through reviews?

We spoke with Dr. Kerry O’Grady, director of teaching excellence at the Columbia Business School, to learn more about how comms pros and managers can make reviews more meaningful.

Reframing the organizational approach 

For starters, communicators and HR professionals should rethink their organization’s approach to reviews through a manager communications lens. Employee reviews should serve as just one part of the feedback process, not the only touchpoint on progress.

“Managers need to give ongoing feedback based on the goals of the employee, their role, and their responsibilities,” O’Grady said. “You need to be in the know and invested in this person’s growth and development.”

But far too often, employees fear reviews because when not done correctly, they provide an avenue for a negative feedback dump in a singular meeting. Harmonious relationships between employees, managers and HR can help avoid situations like these. Cross-departmental collaboration is critical.

“In many cases, HR and management are too transactional in the communication about employee reviews,” O’Grady added. “This applies to both the employee review itself and the process and systems behind the review.”

HR and comms should work together to craft language that clearly outlines the evaluation process before, during and after reviews so there’s transparency and a path to a two-way dialogue between managers and their reports.

“Talk about the process within the employee rating system, or how raises might work,” she said. “There needs to be a mutually beneficial process in place that also holds the manager accountable for their part in the review.”

Employees shouldn’t fear a review — they should instead look to it with optimism and as a chance to further their careers. Ensuring that happens is incumbent on communicators laying the cultural groundwork around the review process.

Assembling transparent building blocks

An employee review shouldn’t be a place for a manager to dump on a report for perceived shortcomings. Ideally, it should serve as just the opposite. Even if there is room for growth, transparency and open communication on the manager’s end should guide the conversation. This can help deconstruct the sometimes threatening appearance of both management and HR nitpicking every mistake an employee makes in a once-yearly meeting.

“Reviews are supposed to be spaces that provide a clear path for growth,” O’Grady said. “If you’re providing feedback, do it openly but be prepared for the reviewee to give their perspective as well.”

Feedback shouldn’t just sit in a vacuum either. You should work with managers to ensure that the review focuses on not just the work itself, but how it figures into the company’s mission and values. Train managers to focus on those core tenets and less on how they’d do in a reviewee’s situation.

“Managers need to give feedback that’s not only actionable, but within the company’s overall mission and ethos,” added O’Grady. “I’ve seen way too many untrained managers give feedback that’s related more to personal preferences and less about the person’s job within the organization. If it’s not harming the organization, provide feedback to help the person, but let them do their job.”

Empathetic acknowledgment

While reviews ideally provide a healthy feedback mechanism for both managers and employees, some people will still dread the review process. To avoid this, comms should encourage HR to provide soft skills training that helps mangers feel comfortable expressing vulnerability and empathy. We’re all people, and people shape your organization’s culture.

“If you’re unable to show any emotion or empathy, you shouldn’t be a leader,” O’Grady said. “If there’s emotion in the room, acknowledge it, don’t ignore it.”

Part of that empathy involves allowing people time to emotionally digest the information exchanged in reviews. If a manager needs to provide constructive feedback on an item, it shouldn’t be an avalanche of critiques. Instead, the manager should seek to ask how they can help an employee improve their work. Constructive dialogue should be the goal.

“Having moments for reflection and consideration are key in any review,” O’Grady added. “These need to be two-way, well-thought-out conversations. Without the dialogue, these are just reports of opinion and perception.”

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.

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