Serena knew that her year-end review was due soon. But there’d been no information about it on the company intranet. Or through any of their other internal comms channels. Plus, her manager hadn’t booked a meeting or even mentioned it. So she pushed it to the back of her mind.
She focused, instead, on the same day-to-day tasks that she’d carried out for the past few years. She was hoping her year-end appraisal would be a chance to discuss a way for her to progress out of her current role. Or at least lead to some new and more challenging opportunities. She tried to remember what goals (if any!) she’d been assigned in her previous review. And how they related to the organization’s vision. But it had been almost a year since she’d sat down with her manager, and there’d been no mention of them since.
Colleagues she knew in other departments had been promoted or given greater responsibilities over the years. Serena wasn’t sure why she was overlooked. She always worked hard and got her job done, but she had no idea how her performance compared with others in her team.
Serena’s review came and went, with little warning. And so did Serena. Deflated and demoralized by another ill-planned and poorly delivered annual performance assessment meeting, she accepted an offer from their competitor company. Not alone, many of her colleagues followed in her footsteps. The result? Let’s just say the company outlook wasn’t looking great.
A year-end review carries a lot of weight. More than a one-off meeting, it’s the culmination of a year’s worth of performance management. And it takes time, training, the right tools, and a consistent, considered, and clear approach to get it right. Nail all of that, and retention rates start to soar. Treat it as a tick-box exercise, and they’ll sink (by as much as 14.9%, according to data by Gallup).
HR professionals are key to all of this. But you’ll struggle to find any resources that reflect this. This guide fills that gap. From reviewing processes for year-end reviews to setting standards, it offers a detailed overview of everything HR teams need to consider throughout the year.
Making plans: What to do before the year-end review
Planning makes or breaks the year-end review. And it starts almost as soon as the previous year-end review finishes. Let’s walk through the steps that make the difference between success and failure.
At the beginning of the year (usually January), revisit feedback and employee evaluation process findings gathered after the previous year’s review cycle. Discuss findings with your leadership team and consider ways of improving employee evaluation across your organization. Then, make any necessary adjustments.
Prep your toolkit
If you haven’t got an HRIS platform to manage your review cycle, ask yourself if there’s now a business case for using one. Has your organization grown? Are you planning on expanding in the next year? Look at all of the factors that might have a bearing on this. Pinpoint your future needs and current resources. And then work out if a software solution is the answer. If it is, research the different options available.
If you’re already using performance evaluation tools, step back and check they’re still working for you. Did they have all of the features and functionality you needed? Was take-up high, or could usability be an issue? Take time now to look into alternatives if you’ve got any doubts. And remember to make provision for data migration and training if you do decide to switch providers.
Pro tip: The right HR performance management system won’t just help you schedule your reviews. It can help you create, measure, and track your goals, conduct surveys, and collect feedback. You can also use tools to track how each employee’s performance aligns with the company’s overall vision. And then, with the feedback you collect, adjust workflows and create action plans to help employees reach their goals.
Set a timeline
As we’ve seen, there’s more to performance reviews than an annual performance assessment meeting. Most organizations will have a mid-year review, too. Some may even have quarterly check-ins. Look at your timeline and plot key dates and automated reminders across the year.
Draft an internal communications plan
Whether it’s milestone dates, a new evaluation tool, platform or process, or an updated performance questionnaire format, decide who in your organization needs to know what, when, and why. And structure an internal comms strategy around this. Remember to segment your audience and specify channels.
What additional information do you need to produce to keep managers and employees excited and educated about the process? Review existing materials and create new resources as needed.
Quiz your questionnaires
For year-end performance reviews to be fair, they need to be consistent. Templates or forms provide structure and standardization to the process. But they also provide focus (which changes over time). So you can’t just set and then forget them. Revisit your year-end performance review questionnaires to make sure what you’re asking employees and managers reflects your organizational objectives—and the growing needs of your business. Remember to factor in feedback from your managers and employees, too.
Confirm rating system
When it comes to consistency and fairness, how you evaluate performance is just as important as what you evaluate. If you’ve reset your year-end performance review templates (even if you haven’t), revisit what “good” looks like. Share your updated rating system with your managers. Provide clear definitions of each level of performance to ensure they evaluate employees using the same standards. And communicate the framework with all employees so they know how their work will be benchmarked and measured.
Top up training
Strategy and performance evaluation planning may create fertile ground for a successful year-end review. But if your managers don’t have the skills they need to deliver on the day, nothing will grow—especially your employees. Before your mid-year reviews kick in, run an L&D check to see what, if any, training your appraisers. Cover off topics such as: giving constructive feedback, active listening, unconscious bias, emotional intelligence, and time management.
Deliver a mid-year prompt
Mid-year (or quarterly) checks offer managers and employees the chance to review progress against goals set at the beginning of the year. Referring back to your timeline, remind managers to check in with their direct reports. Guide them to discuss what’s working, what needs adjustment, and what concerns or challenges might be preventing progress. Be ready to provide support, advice, or extra resources as needed.
Syncing up with your budgeting season (usually around September), meet with managers to discuss performance across their teams and succession planning. Any performance-related cases that require special handling should also be addressed at this point.
Despite providing clarity around your performance ratings system, discrepancies can still exist across teams. For example, what one manager may consider to be high performance, may only be seen as average by another. Calibration meetings held between HR representatives and senior management even out discrepancies. Ratings from all departments are compared, discussed, and benchmarked against the set criteria. These are then modified, where appropriate, to ensure parity and fairness.
Open the year-end review cycle
A few days before the review process starts (usually at the beginning of December), notify all employees of the upcoming reviews. Explain the process. Be clear about when the cycle starts and when it closes. Explain why it matters and how it works. And provide them with any relevant guidelines or expectations.
Review the reviewers
Some HR leaders like to review appraisals before they’re delivered to the employee. There are pros and cons to this approach. Each organization is, of course, unique and a number of factors will influence your decision. If you do opt for this, make sure to schedule in enough time before the cycle closes.
Keeping close: Fuelling progress during the year-end review cycle
Once the year-end review cycle opens, it’s time for managers to pick up the baton. But HR professionals still have an important role to perform during this phase. As well as tracking progress, they need to maintain an open dialogue with appraisers and their appraisees. Let’s see what that looks like.
At this point, your managers and employees will already have been briefed on the purpose and process of the year-end review. And provided with resources to support this. But as the meetings start to take place, it’s important to reinforce expectations (for example, standards and behaviors) to all parties involved.
Offer friendly (and human) reminders
If you’re using an HRIS to manage your year-end process, automated reminders should be in place to keep managers and employers on track to meet deadlines. These work well by providing functional prompts. But it’s also important to keep motivation and interest levels high. Here’s where the HR team comes in. A few carefully-timed and personally crafted reminders from your HR lead inject a warm, human voice into the process. This can make all the difference when it comes to completion rates and meeting deadlines.
You’ve designed a full set of resources around the year-end process. You’ve delivered a detailed communication campaign. And you’ve provided training and documentation on new tools you’ve introduced. But still, there will be questions HR will need to answer. Whether it’s by direct email, through a discussion forum, instant messaging app, or a phone call, set up and manage a channel of communication that supports this.
Check completion rates
Using whatever methods you have set up (HRIS, spreadsheet, online form), it’s vital for HR teams to monitor progress during the year-end review cycle. Staying in sync with completion rates throughout the cycle means you’re ready to provide accurate reports to your leadership team when requested. And decide whether gentle nudges need to be escalated into firmer reminders of deadlines.
Design a survey
Of course, you’ll also need to collect more detailed and diverse data around the process for reporting and to inform future developments. An online survey delivered after the review cycle has closed is ideal for this. Take time now to decide what you want to measure. And then design questions around these metrics. Depending on your approach, you may want to produce two surveys: one for employees and a different one for managers.
What’s next? Following up after year-end reviews
Managers and employees tend to take a breath after the completion of year-end reviews. For HR, the pace continues with this list of follow-up tasks and activities.
Meet with managers
In general, it’s a good idea to meet with managers after the year-end review. Depending on your approach (and the size of your organization), these can be informal catch-ups or more formal and coordinated discussions. Either way, the aim here is to capture immediate and anecdotal feedback. And to find out about urgent issues relating to individual employees that might have emerged during the process.
Which leads us to…
Mediate if required
With the right training, most managers will deliver fair, effective, and empathetic year-end reviews. And with the right training and understanding of the process, most employees would know how to accept and act on feedback. But, stuff happens. And, occasionally, year-end reviews may trigger emotions and issues that either the employee or manager may have been trying to keep hidden. Experts in the field, HR professionals need to be on-hand and briefed to step in and act as advocates where necessary.
Review and build employee development plans
Goal setting is a key part of the year-end performance review process. And it forms the backbone of every employee development plan. Employees and managers should be able to craft these independently. But HR input is required at this stage to make sure individual objectives are aligned with organizational goals. And that the development plan works for both the employee, the team, and the company as a whole.
Support performance improvement
For some employees, year-end reviews may highlight the need for a performance improvement plan (PIP). This could be the case when they’re new to a role or failing to meet performance expectations. While every organization is different, there will be a formal (and legal) process to follow. Guiding managers through the process, and offering support to employees, HR managers play a critical role throughout this stage.
Document and record
Driving personal development, employee engagement, team, and company success (plus retention), year-end reviews go way beyond a tick-box exercise. But they are also linked to compliance. With the year-end process closed, it’s now important for HR managers to record and store relevant documents to support this.
Gather and discuss feedback
You’ve designed your post-review survey. Now’s the time to share it. Make sure access is easy and universal. Set a deadline. And explain how the results will be used.
Audit and analyze
Performance management isn’t a “set and forget” process. And improving employee evaluation should always be front of mind for HR teams. Using data from your survey, HRIS, and any other sources, look for patterns or trends that might be an indicator of change. Factor in organizational shifts, too. And look for ways to drive future efficiencies.
Optimizing employee evaluations: Best practice tips for year-end reviews
We’ve covered what to do and when. But to optimize performance management, there are a few general year-end review tips to bear in mind. Here are our top tips to consider when planning effective performance appraisals:
- New hires: Remember. Employees with three months service or less don’t need to participate in the process. But you can still hold informal meetings to discuss progress and next steps.
- Manager assessments: 360-degree feedback can provide useful insights into leadership performance. It also demonstrates parity of approach.
- Qualitative feedback: Design assessments and surveys that give employees the chance to share their opinions openly instead of simply ticking boxes. And provide follow-up opportunities for discussion.
- Direction change: Resist the urge to update the evaluation format too often. Users need time to build familiarity.
- Informal conversations: Speak casually with employees about job satisfaction, training requirements, and long-term ambition. Use this alongside formal reviews to build a richer picture of what success looks like for each employee.
- Actionable language: Promote the use of helpful and constructive language during performance evaluations. Remind managers that to fuel meaningful and productive conversations, comments shouldn’t be subjective, generic, or passive.
Time well spent: Planning for success
As our checklist shows, a lot of effort goes into year-end reviews. Particularly on the part of HR. But they shouldn’t be viewed as a chore. Yes, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes if you want to make it an impactful process. But, done right, the employee evaluation process brings big benefits to everyone involved. The key is to take it one step at a time. And to take whatever help (think checklists!) you’re offered along the way.
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