Performance review training

A formal performance review system could be technically close to perfect, but it can still fall over quickly if attention is not paid to training participants in how to use the system effectively. This article looks at the issues and recommended techniques that performance review training needs to cover.

Generous resource allocation required

A common mistake is to devote most of the resources to design and implementation of the system, and only a small portion to training. However, some studies have found a clear correlation between resources devoted to training and success of a system, and recommend that the majority of allocated resources should go to training both managers (the people who conduct the reviews) and employees (the people who are reviewed).

Training methods

Training of managers is often included as part of general leadership training and development but, even so, where a formal review system is used, it should include specific training on use of that system. For employees, a separate training program is usually necessary.

While many aspects of performance review training can be covered by online training modules, it is important to remember that a crucial part of performance reviews is the face-to-face performance review interviews. Therefore, a substantial part of the training process should include interactive methods such as role plays, simulations, videos and case studies. This point is discussed in more detail below.

Contents of training programs for managers

For managers, performance review training should cover the following issues:

  • what performance reviews are meant to achieve
  • what ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘marginal’ and ‘bad’ performance (and any other ratings) actually comprise, expressed in on-the-job behaviour terms
  • what is needed to achieve ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ performance — including employee skills/ability, employee engagement, understanding/perception of job role, support provided by organisation, management style
  • the need to evaluate all factors that contribute to an employee’s performance on the job
  • how to give feedback to employees, both positive and negative
  • the need to evaluate the performance, not the person
  • how to use concrete examples of performance and behaviour to make ratings and provide feedback
  • how to deal with conflict, objections and defensiveness, such as disputes over performance ratings
  • how to conduct performance review interviews
  • how to develop/improve listening skills
  • common errors made when rating performance and providing feedback (eg bias, subjectivity, halo effect, stereotyping), and how to avoid them
  • how to set and communicate appropriate performance standards, and gain employees’ agreement with them
  • how to counsel employees to improve performance, including identifying where the boundaries are (eg how not to become involved in personal problems, and how to focus on job performance only)
  • administrative issues such as completing forms, communicating progress with employees, arranging interviews, documenting discussions and outcomes, following up on commitments.

Training for employees

Training employees to prepare for performance reviews often receives even less attention than training of managers, but it should cover at least the following:

  • what performance reviews are meant to achieve and how the information is used
  • how performance is measured, including what ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘marginal’ and ‘bad’ performance (and any other ratings) actually comprise, expressed in on-the-job behaviour terms
  • the scope of a performance review interview (ie what can be discussed and what is better handled elsewhere)
  • how to complete any relevant forms, online tools, self-assessments, etc
  • where a self-rating system is used, how to make the ratings
  • how to monitor and assess one’s own performance
  • how to prepare for the interview itself
  • how to give and receive feedback
  • how to develop/improve listening skills
  • how to set goals and prepare action plans
  • procedure to follow if employee disagrees with an assessment.

Note: training for both parties should not be a one-off exercise; refresher training (eg shortly before each review is due) is recommended.

Giving and receiving feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is probably the hardest of these skills to train people in, and requires a lot of active practice. Skills-based training is the best way to achieve competence, and can include:

  • role plays that should be recorded (so that the participants can watch them later)
  • simulations of performance review interviews
  • watching and commenting on case studies.

In each case, participants and observers should be asked to evaluate participants’ performance. Their ratings should focus on aspects such as:

  • extent to which each party (manager and employee) does the talking or dominated the discussion
  • the manager’s efforts to establish rapport with the employee
  • body language of each participant
  • types of questions asked
  • reactions to questions asked
  • pace and timing of the interview
  • nature of feedback provided — separate evaluations of positive and negative feedback recommended
  • general ‘tone’ of the interview (eg how calm did each participant remain)
  • use of work behaviour-based examples
  • listening skills displayed by each participant
  • effectiveness at bringing interview to a constructive conclusion.

Observers should be asked to rate both their own behaviour and that of other participants. They could also be asked to describe and comment on actual previous performance review interviews that they have taken part in.

Remember: different types of employees may approach performance reviews with different perspectives. For example, new employees may see things differently from long-serving ones approaching retirement. Part-time and casual employees may have different attitudes to full-time ones. While the need to avoid stereotyping groups of people remains, training of managers should also address the issue of recognising and catering for different employees’ agendas.

Guidelines for feedback

Training in giving and receiving feedback should emphasise the points listed below.

Giving feedback involves:

  • being specific and factual — based on actual on-the-job examples that can be observed and verified. Avoid making inferences, allegations or conclusions, otherwise defensive behaviour and arguments may develop
  • indicating the solution — corrective action or behaviour required
  • being regular and timely — provided shortly after the behaviour in question, so that any problems can be identified and fixed before their impact becomes worse. Don’t sit on issues in order to build up a ‘case’ for or against the employee
  • being clear — focusing only on the important points, avoiding information overload, to ensure the other party notices them.

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