Conducting clear-cut performance reviews of your IT staff

Performance reviews are often a defining moment in an employee's career, but there are several points to consider when conducting an evaluation.

Performance reviews are probably the single most important discussions you’ll have with members of your staff....

Although performance reviews are traditionally a once-a-year event, some companies are now doing them twice a year. Regardless of the frequency, a professionally-done review should be done just like you should do your taxes: The end result should be the formalization of 12 months of regular discussion, feedback, analysis, and evaluation. Do the work in small bits all year, and you will be ready when the big moment arrives. Neither you nor the employee should be shocked at what is discussed.

The annual review process gives you a chance to document the employee’s accomplishments, dedication, commitment, challenges and opportunities for improvement. Many companies have evaluation forms that have been developed by the HR department. Other companies have no form and leave it up to each manager, or simply rely on a memo-style format. However, a form generally won’t help you since a useful evaluation should really consist of descriptive narratives and discussion, not merely checked boxes.

Performance reviews are often used to resolve two other important company issues: rewarding over-performing employees and addressing underperforming employees. Poorly written evaluations make both of these tasks even more difficult, and the costs of failing at this are high:

  • Mishandled terminations can (and often do, these days) end in lawsuits.

  • Mishandled reviews of good performers often lead to the key employee changing jobs to get what he or she should have received from you.

Key areas of evaluation

Areas that you want to consider when reviewing an employee’s performance include:

Quality of work
Is this person providing excellent or mediocre work? Not every staff member will give you spectacular performances. On the other hand, not every staff member is compensated spectacularly. But your needs as a manager may be such that this person fulfills certain other critical functions: They may be a team member who keeps others enthusiastic about the project, for example, or sets a good example for keeping focused, or has a deep knowledge of company history and provides long-term perspective to decisions.

Most roles have job descriptions and some job descriptions are even written down, but almost no job description adequately anticipates the real-world demands of the position. It’s important for every employee to understand the real goals of the department and how he can help achieve those goals. Changing market conditions, changing project demands and priorities and changing technical capacities all require employees to be flexible about their tasks. Has this employee adapted well to the fluid requirements of the job?

Creativity in solving problems
Along with flexibility about their job descriptions, good employees are often creative in solving problems. Five new employees started Monday, but only four laptops were delivered; a creative employee might find one in the test lab to tide everyone over. The rush order for two new servers needs a manager’s signature, but she called in sick today; a creative employee will find a manager from another department or the manager’s boss to get the order started.

Communication skills
Can this person communicate well? Does he send clear, easy-to-read email or does he send rambling email messages that take 10 minutes to read and are still difficult to understand? Do he speak well in meetings, does he make personal attacks, or does he say nothing at all? Technical people are often not great communicators because their jobs often don’t require tremendous amounts of interaction. But there is a base level of information exchange that every job requires, and a base level of interactive behavior that every organization requires. If a person works in a group, there are certain standards that must be met.

Today’s technology can be used in many different ways and when multiple technologies are combined, the possibilities can grow exponentially. Innovation is an attribute for finding new ways of doing things -- or doing new things. This could be anything related to simplifying processes, reducing errors or finding additional uses for existing tools.

Going above and beyond requirements of the job
Many employees view their work as nothing more than a job, a day’s work for a day’s pay, and have almost an adversarial stance about doing anything more. Can you fault someone for doing only what they are supposed to do? However, for those who view their work as more of a “career” than a “job” and seek to be promoted and move up, going above and beyond the job requirements is one of the best ways to achieve those goals. This can include helping out co-workers, volunteering to do the more challenging tasks, working on items that no one else seems to want to do, etc.

Coordination and collaboration with others (particularly those they don’t have direct authority over)
“Plays well with others” is another way to describe this attribute. It simply means that you work well with others on a team. This could apply to situations where a large team is formed for a particular project, as well as the case of individual contributors that periodically have to interact with others. It also includes gaining the respect of those you work with. To do all this well requires a number of skills and traits: interpersonal, influencing, leadership, communication/ listening, trust, adaptability, compromise and relationship building.

Managers look for accountability in their employees primarily because it makes the manager’s job easier. A manager prefers knowing that when an employee is assigned a task, it will be done, and the manager won’t have to do regular checks to ensure that work is progressing. Accountability also means that the employee will recognize what their own responsibilities are, and will not sit around waiting for the manager to tell them what to do.

If your staff isn’t accountable, you end up as a micro-manager. On the other hand, it’s up to the manager to make employees feel accountable through follow-up, project assignments, stated goals and objectives and a clear statement of the job requirements, as well as the impact to others when things don’t go as planned.

Ability to complete assignments in a timely manner
For most companies today, timely performance is critical. Gone are the days when deadlines were approximations, and missing them had few consequences. “Just-in-time” no longer refers to an inventory technique; it now is often used to describe how entire departments and companies act in response to market conditions.

Be clear about your expectations for timely performance and let your staff know you’ll be using that as a criterion for evaluation. Also let them know that you are being evaluated on that basis as well. Installing the new phone system on Monday instead of the Friday before may be suddenly required, but create an environment where people feel comfortable suggesting coming in on Saturday (or at least discussing if it is necessary).

Ability to pick up new skills on their own
The IT world changes so quickly that it’s an employee’s fundamental responsibility to help herself, her department and her company stay current. Every department has the programmer still resting on his legacy coding skills; encourage your staff not to become that person.

Ability to work with and enhance the work of other staff members
You may have a Windows administrator with superlative technical skills but zero people skills. Let him know that your IT department is a team, not a random collection of individuals, and everyone is expected to interact professionally with each other. Snarling or swearing at anyone else who touches the system isn’t acceptable.

Many a manager has had to say, “You don’t have to like all your fellow IT department members, but you have to treat them with respect.” This is a common problem with technical people and one way of solving the issue is to inform them that their behavior in this area is part of their review.

Ability to manage short- and long-term projects
Every employee in IT is given projects, some long and complex, some short and simple. Inform your staff that their ability to handle projects is an element you will be evaluating when it comes to review time. Many employees might not think in project-related terms; they think their task is to get the new laptops installed in the Sales department in the next two weeks (and not see how it relates to the bigger goal of a new sales-force automation system implementation).

Of course, that is a project, a set task with a specific goal, resources and a timeline. For some levels and tasks, as long as they finish the projects on time and under budget it isn’t important for them to think in project management terms. But those who do see the bigger picture and take the long view may have brighter futures.

Guidelines for reviews

Don’t forget: both you and the members of your IT staff are salaried professionals. Act as such and treat them that way. Your respect will be rewarded.

No surprises
As mentioned above, preparing for a review is often a year-long process that ends with the written evaluation and the meeting with the employee. As such, a performance review shouldn’t contain any surprises for the employee, especially bad surprises. Any negative comments that you include in the review should be items that you’ve discussed with the employee multiple times in the course of the year.

Be objective
It’s important to remember that a performance review is the company’s formal assessment of the employee’s performance. Be as objective as possible. Remember reviews of your own performance. Often the most contentious items are the subjective ones. With this in mind, your performance review should be full of examples and specifics to back up your assessment. Providing quantifiable accomplishments and measurable goals helps you remain objective.

Also, remember that other people will read this review in the future. Other people in the company, for example, may read this review when thinking about transferring the employee into their department. Or the person may leave and may later reapply at your company. Be sure that your comments accurately reflect the employee’s performance.

Carefully record details
The more specifics you can provide, the more valuable the review will be for the employee. And the more specifics you can provide now, the more understandable it will be in the future. It’s hard to recall the incidents you need when you’re looking back on the past 12 months. Review your own status reports for ideas. During the year, jot quick notes to yourself on scraps of paper that you toss into the employee’s file. While this sounds like a great idea in theory, it’s in fact something many good managers do on a regular basis. Details matter, and memories fade. Record them as they happen and both you and the recipient of your work -- for this is real work that managers have to do -- will be better for it.

When reviewing these notes, take the long view. Try and look over the course of the entire year and remember that you probably wrote those notes when something was going particularly well, or particularly poorly. Perhaps those comments are right on target, or perhaps they represent an emotional high or low.

As you prepare the review, you can also ask the employee for her own list of accomplishments (and areas they think they can improve upon) over the past 12 months. This can help jog your own memory and help you understand what the employee considers her greatest achievement. Additionally, it helps you see what the employee thinks were her most important contributions. Getting her input can help you avoid embarrassment by failing to mention something that was important to her.

Negative reviews

Performance reviews that are mostly or entirely negative are difficult for both the reviewer and the reviewed. There are four important points to keep in mind if you are in this situation:

  1. Be as specific as possible
  2. Negative reviews should not be a surprise to anyone
  3. Keep HR informed
  4. Be professional

Be specific
Not only will the session(s) probably be very emotional, but the end result can be more positive when you can be very specific about what happened. This detail includes not only past performance but current events. Be clear and detailed in your notes about what conversations took place and what each party said. If the employee failed to meet goals, identify what those goals were and where the employee came-up short. Stick to the facts and be objective.

It should not be a surprise
Follow the guidelines outlined in this excerpt; constantly communicate with your staff and record both accomplishments and failures throughout the year. If you do these things, both you and the employee should be aware of the mismatch between their goals and their performance.

Keep HR informed
Make sure to keep your HR department informed. If your company doesn’t have an HR department, find an appropriate third party to keep informed of (or sit in on) the situation -- your own boss is a logical choice. If you keep someone else involved and aware of the situation, you will always have a third party to check back with (if required) later in the process.

Be professional
Take extra care to make sure that what you write comes off in a highly professional manner. Resist the urge to list failures. Instead, cite circumstances where the employee “fell short of expectations” or “needs development” to identify areas where the employee needs to focus his efforts. In some situations, an employee may not be aware of his own weakness; for example, his contributions and involvement at staff meetings are more like speeches instead of discussions. If this is the case, consider it a coaching opportunity for you and a development area for him.

Have employees review themselves

Many companies have adopted the formal policy of having employees, in addition to their managers, review themselves. The employee uses the same form as the manager and evaluates her performance over the specified period of time. Naturally, self-reviews (like resumes) can contain some elements of (how shall we put it?) “skill inflation”? Nonetheless, the exercise is a very valuable one for both the employee and the manager.

The employee gets a chance to express her concerns and talk about what she thought her strengths and weaknesses were. Identifying the gaps between the manager’s assessment and the employee’s self-assessment can help in figuring out development opportunities, and identify where problems are.

"360" Reviews

The theory behind “360 degree reviews” is that an employee receives feedback from not only his direct supervisor, but from other individuals as well. This may include peers and subordinates (see the table below). A person may work on a project run by another department manager, for example; in that case, the other manager can have direct input into the employee’s review. Or an employee may work much more with two staff members and may only occasionally see their direct manager. (Some employees have management in other states or other countries.) In that case, 360 reviews allow the individuals who most directly work with the person to provide input on their performance.

When 360 reviews were a new evaluation technique, many companies tried them; how many are still using them isn’t clear. If your company is using them, or thinking of using them, be prepared for more feedback -- both good and bad -- at review time.

The pros and cons of "360" Reviews

Pros Cons
360 reviews provide opportunities for people traditionally not asked for their opinions to express them; customers, for example, often have to be proactive about providing feedback to suppliers.

They generally involve a lot more data. And, the feedback from multiple people may be inconsistent, which makes it difficult to identify pluses and minuses and figure out a development plan.

The quality of review for some workers improves tremendously because the people best suited to evaluate an individual are now involved in the process.

In addition, people who haven’t done performance reviews before are suddenly providing detailed review data; you may or may not want information on Ken’s workplace cleanliness, for example.

A newer trend is to use 360 assessments not as formal review components but as feedback mechanisms throughout the year. In other words, you may ask the manager from another department for feedback on your staff member once the project ends, store that feedback away and use it during the review. Or solicit input from project team members at the end of the project and use that data later. But when review time comes around, you don’t need to poll five co-workers of the employee or customers that person has talked to; you already have that data. You do a performance review as you normally would using the data you collected throughout the year.

How to conduct the actual review discussion

When it’s time to meet with the employee to go over the performance review, remember it’s a discussion. Make this an interactive time, not a linear one. Do not simply read the review to him. In fact, you may want to consider giving the employee time to read the review in advance of your meeting, so that he has time to digest it and can then discuss it intelligently and unemotionally.

Remember though, as a manager, to discuss it with conviction. This is your “assessment” of his performance. You should be willing to make changes for two reasons: gross error (e.g., a project was completed on time, when you said it wasn’t) or language nuances.

Respect privacy
If you work in a cube farm make sure you reserve a conference room or arrange for an off-site meeting. You will both want the comfort of knowing the conversation isn’t being overheard, regardless of whether everything is positive.

Tone of the discussion
You need to be clear in your discussion with the employee. Depending on the employee’s performance, your tone may need to include hints of motivation, hard-heartedness, and optimism. At the end of the review, there shouldn’t be any doubt in the employee’s mind as to what you think of his performance, where he has excelled, where he needs to improve and steps he needs to take to do so.

In certain cases, you might want to have specific follow-up meetings with an employee at regular intervals after the formal performance reviews. If necessary, you may want to consider additional interim informal reviews at certain, pre-specified times.


Printed with permission from Morgan Kaufmann, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2007. IT Managers Handbook: Getting your new job done, 2e by Bill Holtsnider and Brian Jaffe. For more information about this title and other similar books, please visit

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