Evaluating Your Employees

As I mentioned in a previous entry, it's review time at Microsoft. I already gave my guidelines on how employees should write their comments. Now it's time for my guidelines on how managers should write their evaluations of their employees. Many guidelines from my previous post apply here. Being a manager of managers, I find it very helpful to both me and my managers to review their comments for each of their employees. It helps them grow as managers as they continue to improve their ability to give clear feedback, and it helps me understand what the individuals in my team are doing. This works well with a team up to about 25 people. Larger than that and I find it too much to read.


Here are some specific guidelines for managers to consider:

1. Respond to employee comments. Depending on the review form employees fill out, sometimes there are employee comments in various sections. Managers should add comments in all those sections to address what the employee has written. If instead all the manager comments are gathered at the end, the employee may question if all their comments were read.

2. Although the goal is to be concise and not verbose, a manager needs to compare the amount of comments they are writing to what their employee wrote. For example, if the employee was very excited about their work in a certain area, they may write a few paragraphs on it. The manager shouldn't just write a statement or two saying that they agree...ok, that is part of my guidelines for employees writing their comments, but in reality I wouldn't expect managers to only write that! If the employee is excited about their work, then the manager should document their excitement as well (assuming this is a place for positive feedback). The employee will want to read about how well the manager thinks they did. Give examples from the manager viewpoint of some of the items that the employees accomplished. Sometimes this is a repeat of their evaluation, but instead it adds a different perspective, try to find examples that are different, or combine all their items into a more broad example of a skill they are exhibiting.

3. A manager's evaluation needs to set the correct tone for feedback to the employee and to reflect the overall compensation. This is a balance between positive and negative feedback. If overall the employee's performance was poor, more constructive feedback on areas of improvement needs to be in the evaluation. There should still be recognition of good work, but within the degree that they exhibited during the review period. If the employee's performance was stellar, then more positive feedback should be given. Some constructive feedback should also be given since most employees that are doing well still want to know where they can improve and grow.

4. Remove yourself from the evaluation. Employees don't want to read about the manager in their evaluations. Avoid starting sentences with the phrase "I know", such as "I know you delivered that automation on time". Of course managers should know that! Managers shouldn't need to prove what they know about an employee’s performance within the evaluation. Only use the phrase if the employee is afraid everyone overlooked some of the work they did.

5. State the positives, state the negatives, conclude with a summary of positive (toned appropriately for the employee). For examples, I always like seeing managers use motivational phrases in their comments such as 1). "Great job", 2). "Keep up the good work", and 3). "You are a valuable contributor to the team". For any of these statements, there are degrees that when set appropriately will set the tone. Don't say "great job" if really it was a solid performance, and not great. Instead say "good job" or "thank you for your solid contributions". Similarly, the third statement can be made overly positive with "the success of the team was solely based on your wonderful contributions".

6. Get peer feedback and use it. Many managers forget to get peer feedback, yet their employees spend most of their days doing work without the manager present. Getting a different perspective on how an employee is doing is a great resource for giving feedback or support the feedback that was already planned. In some cases, I will pull phrases from peer feedback and add them as comments with a section that just says, "Here’s what your peers are saying" and then put quotes around each phrase. I don't put enough text in there for the employee to determine who gave the feedback because it needs to stay anonymous.

7. Managers typically write strong direct feedback when it's positive. But when they have to say something negative, they add so many phrases and words that the exact message isn't clear. I ask the manager to tell me verbally what they want the message to be. Most people talk more concisely than they write. Once they state it verbally, they can then go back and rewrite the negative feedback more concisely. Along with this, after giving negative feedback, explain what success looks like so that they know what to aim for next time.

8. Don't use third person. Managers should be writing their comments directly to the employee who will be reading it. So use the term "you". Don't use the employees name so that it reads like the feedback is written about that employee to someone else. It's more personal to say "you". It's also harder to give direct negative feedback, but when done correct, the message is received a lot clearly when addressing the employee directly. Also consider adding their name at the beginning of the evaluation similar to addressing a letter to help direct the comments to them individually.

9. Use extremes. This may seem like an odd guideline, but reading comments that are neither strongly positive nor strong negative make it difficult to get the message across to the employee and have it stick. It's ok to use both positive and negative extremes in a review. It drives home what the manager thinks really went well and what the manager thinks really went poorly. This will impact the employee and they will remember this better through the next year as they work towards their next review. Be careful and don't exaggerate details or feedback. The use of extremes is only for the tone.

10. Use company terms.   Many times, employees want to follow up on feedback from their managers. Many companies have some standard terms or documentation; point the employee to those as appropriate. Microsoft has competencies that employees are expected to exhibit. Instead of explaining the details around how to get better at focusing on the customer (for example), I can point employees to the competency on this and they can see what it looks like to exhibit this skill at different levels of experience.