Performance reviews to empower employees and your business

Doug sits down to fill out the annual performance review templates provided by human resources. While not his favorite part of being a manager, he knows the task comes with the job.

First up is Julia Adams. A good employee who lives up to her job description, he gives her “4s” and “5s” in most categories. Under “willingness to help others,” he decides on a “3” because she has not appeared as eager to aid fellow team members lately.

When Julia receives the performance appraisal, she becomes furious. She storms into Doug’s office and questions how he arrived at that score. He talks about her seeming to focus solely on her responsibilities rather than notice when colleagues could use a hand. Julia reminds him that two months ago, she voluntarily put in many late nights to assist two co-workers who promised a client more than they could deliver alone. Now, she is trying to catch up on her professional and personal obligations.

Doug feels terrible. He now remembers commending Julia back then for going the extra mile for our team. How could that event have slipped his mind?

Benefits of routinely documenting employee performance

Performance reviews, annual or otherwise, are a vital part of performance management at many companies. They are a valuable and efficient way to record information about employees. While they certainly should not be the only time managers offer feedback to team members, their standard format and consistent intervals provide a way to look at employee performance over time and compare co-workers. This data often contributes to making decisions about salary increases, promotions, and choice assignments fairly and justifiedly.


As Doug discovered, accurate accounts can prove tricky when put on the spot. For this reason, it pays for managers to make performance documentation throughout the year a priority.

Managers who maintain written records on positive and negative employee behavior can pull out such files at review time, making completing forms much more manageable. Such information allows leaders to paint a picture of the entire period, not just recent events. The documentation jogs memory, so important things stay intact.

Formal vs. informal employee performance documentation

A performance evaluation is among the types of paperwork companies typically store in personnel files. It serves as a permanent record to which HR professionals and others in the organization may wish to refer down the line. In addition to input such as numerical ratings and specific examples to back up scores, the document contains the employee’s signature acknowledging receipt. It may also include a written response, such as the employee explaining the events or performance issues.

Individual files also may contain formal write-ups as proper documentation of employee performance issues. Company policies dictate the performance problems subject to this formal disciplinary action (lousy attitude, tardiness, insubordination, dress code violations, failure to meet established metrics, etc.). The employee handbook lays out the sequence of progressive discipline so everyone at the company can have a common reference point.

Beyond Formal Documentation: The Power of Casual Record-Keeping for Managers

Managers must be well-versed in the progressive disciplinary sequence so a disgruntled employee cannot later claim improper handling. They also must pay attention to thorough documentation. A clear, organized, accurate paper trail protects the company and its leaders should legal or union-instigated questions arise.

Not all records managers make need to be formal, though. Sometimes, simply jotting some notes for oneself is helpful. Do so as events or observations occur to maintain accuracy. Record accomplishments. Note unsung actions deserving of praise. List topics to discuss, such as career goals and professional development opportunities. Write down contributions to the organization’s culture. For your eyes only, organize material by employee name however you see fit, physically or electronically.

Do you want to find time to create these casual self-reminders in your busy schedule? Designate an appointed day each month (such as the first Tuesday). Or, if you regularly hold 1:1 meetings with team members, update your informal notes after coaching sessions while thoughts about the person remain fresh.

Considerations when documenting employee performance

If you’re doing a performance evaluation, write-up, note to self, or other documentation, please always remember to maintain professionalism. What you say and how you say it affects the person you are discussing and influences how others see things. It also reflects on you, so do what you can to appear organized, accurate, thorough, impartial, and fair.

  • Fill out formal templates completely. You may not see a missing date or an incomplete description of events as a big deal; a lawyer down the line may think otherwise.
  • Leave judgment out. Let facts speak for themselves. State that an employee violated the dress code by wearing open-toed shoes and a halter top. Do not write that she dressed like a hooker. Likewise, do not play psychiatrist or life coach. Recount errors made on reports rather than say you suspect untreated ADHD or think the person’s recent divorce is causing concentration problems.
  • Refrain from emotional outbursts. Again, I favor objective reporting. Yes, you may be fed up with poor performance, but skip ranting about laziness. Instead, provide the person’s sales metrics vs. agreed-upon performance expectations.
  • Stay consistent. The length of write-ups should be similar for employees with similar offenses. A drawn-out account for one person and barely any commentary for the other could give the impression of picking on the former. Monitor performance evaluations for the same type of problem. Whether you like it or not, employees will compare how much you wrote with each other.
  • Match ratings and words. Numbers and statements on performance evaluations need to support each other. Employees and HR managers need clarification about how well expectations are met when scores and written feedback fail to align. If Jenna receives a 3 out of 5 for the quality of her work, use corresponding terms such as “sufficient” and “on track” rather than “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Avoid sugar coating. Deliver feedback respectfully, but watch coming off as too nice because you want to be liked or fear someone’s reaction to criticism. Too optimistic of language when documenting a problem runs the risk of the worker not understanding the issue and its severity. Don’t expect change if an offender does not receive clear notice that a problem exists and clear guidance on rectifying it.

    Lastly, realize that others at the company might unintentionally or otherwise come across your informal notes. Do not write anything about an employee you would be embarrassed to have others read.