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The Performance Review as a Tool for Mentoring

The review process should be much more than just a ‘check the box’ kind of exercise.

In two recent labor columns we explored the issue of performance evaluations and their legal pitfalls employers need to watch out for. In the first we discussed the pros and cons of continuing to pursue traditional annual reviews, and in the second we explored alternatives to the annual review some employers have developed.

Those articles addressed legalities and liabilities, but they still left one important question mostly unanswered: What is the best way to get the most value out of performance reviews for both employers and employees? One person who believes that she has the answer is Frances P. Dwornik, an attorney with the law firm Odin Feldman & Pittleman.

“Most managers and many employees do not fondly anticipate performance evaluations; for many managers, the process is painful and time consuming,” she notes. “It is not easy to deliver criticism to colleagues with whom you work on a daily basis, knowing that as soon as the evaluation is concluded, you will continue to work together. For employees receiving the review, some feel uncomfortable being under scrutiny, even if the feedback is praise and congratulations for a job well done.”

In too many cases what should be an important tool for feedback instead turns into a brief exercise in checking the box when a review could be a much more meaningful opportunity for positive dialogue, she adds. “Every manager is a mentor; every employee is a mentee. If you follow that belief, then your goal as a manager is to continually motivate and help guide your mentee to achieve his/her goals and advance in his or her career.”

She suggests sending each subordinate a personal e-mail about their progress towards goals at least once a month (more if you can but at least monthly). These check-in e-mails, containing both recognition for progress and areas for improvement, can be saved to a folder for background when making year-end evaluations over time, not just the most recent events in the months immediately before evaluations are drafted. You also can set up a calendar reminder if that helps.

The e-mails don’t need to be lengthy, but the more targeted and specific questions, offers of assistance, and observations of challenges the employee faces, the better you will be able to offer guidance and coaching. Plus, at year end, you have a consistent record of the employee’s performance over time and your positive efforts to be a good mentor.

You also have the benefit of nurturing your relationship with your mentee which should help promote higher engagement and performance. “Personal touches and attention do matter for some employees; this may matter more than other employee benefits and costs only your time,” according to Dwornik.

When the focus is on helping mentor your employee, the messages should be focused on accomplishments and how to achieve those goals. If the employee isn’t moving at the needed pace, ask what tools or assistance can help him/her speed progress. “It’s easier to ask someone with whom you work how you can help them become more successful while recognizing that he or she isn’t fully achieving goals than to simply say, ‘You aren’t working hard enough’ or ‘You keep missing deadlines,’” she says.

Pair Criticism and Assistance

When you see a subordinate struggling—whether it is in time management, interpersonal conflicts or other workplace challenges—it’s easier to address these issues if you also can offer suggestions or assistance to address underlying issues that may cause these problems. This way, you’re not just identifying a problem, but also offering the employee tools to address it.

If the employee rejects the offers of assistance, then you have a record of the offer and the rejection, which is especially helpful if the employee’s struggles continue without improvement. If the employee accepts your assistance, then they become part of the solution and hopefully see that their manager wants him or her to be successful.

Opening up a relationship to giving and receiving constructive criticism isn’t easy, but these e-mail/text/personal visit exchanges can help nurture a relationship where these exchanges are easier, Dwornik points out. By the year-end review, you have a record of challenges that were either overcome or not met, along with the offer of assistance providing clear, personal accountability for not meeting those challenges.

“The performance evaluation then serves as merely a recap of an active supervisory relationship over time so you don’t have to first raise concerns during a review,” she says. “You are evaluating actions over time. Having and keeping these regular communications will make preparing the performance evaluations easier and will reflect a more even timeline of performance over the year.”

Dwornik also reminds managers that they shouldn’t wait to give feedback. Send short e-mails checking in on action items, general progress towards goals and specific observations in the moment. Each e-mail is proof you’re paying attention and that you care about your subordinates and their day-to-day work.

Regular communications during the year make year-end performance evaluations easier and allows you to provide course correction in the moment when your mentee isn’t achieving the milestones established or is having difficulty with a specific project or customer.

“Giving regular feedback also ensures employees can’t stay below the radar,” she stresses. If you check in on how work is progressing and there are undisclosed problems that weren’t shared with you, the employee has no excuse for failing to inform you. You also are more likely to notice issues before they become larger, more difficult-to-solve problems.

Using these tips will help make performance evaluations easier. If you’ve regularly sent short e-mails, you will have a digital file to draw from in preparing the review. You also won’t have that awkward feeling of raising performance concerns if you’ve regularly mentioned them before and offered assistance.

“You will have a record of communications and the employee’s responses to use in preparing the evaluation so your evaluations have specific examples instead of generalities. Your review can focus on achievements in light of those concerns and further steps toward further career success, Dwornik says. Having this history of the past year’s challenges and achievements leaves more time to focus on the year ahead and new goals to be set.

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