Back to Basics: Performance Reviews with Clarity and Purpose

No process in the HR toolbox is more loved and loathed than the performance review, but it’s time to put performance reviews back on the map as an HR program with real return on investment for employees.

Rachel Kleban
HR Consultant and former VP of People

No process in the HR toolbox is more loved and loathed than the performance review. As a profession, we have revamped, reimagined, tweaked and even thrown away this foundational process, always to land back where we started: With a process where investment in time and mindshare is not returned in business impact. 


And yet, we can’t - and I would argue shouldn’t - live without it.  Effectively measuring and motivating performance is likely the most important thing the people function can do to impact the business. So why has the performance review process become such a challenge to get right?


  • First, performance has become a bad word, associated with cut throat, aggressive cultures that are dismissive of individual needs. Think about the “up or out” cultures, forced ratings and rankings and the idea of a persistent bottom 10% of the past several decades. These approaches turned out to be generally counter-productive and have not done performance reviews any favors in the reputation department.
  • Meanwhile, growth and development has gained prominence. Employee development continues to show up as a top driver of engagement and retention, and employees are increasingly vocal about expectations for their own growth. 


As a result of these trends, performance reviews have shifted significantly from being focused primarily on performance toward formats that focus on conversations about growth and development. While this can “feel good”, the result is a performance review system that does not clearly answer the question, “Did I perform my role as expected?” To be successful, performance reviews should not only answer this question, but shed light on why or why not


Embracing Performance


Perhaps it’s time for the concept of performance to get a rebrand. And by this, I do not mean renaming performance reviews (we’ve all tried that!), but rather refocusing on setting clear expectations and giving direct and objective feedback on how employees are doing against those expectations.


Ultimately, measuring performance is as simple as an assessment of expectations vs. reality. 


In startup culture in particular, there has been a tendency to shy away from defining roles and expectations. It can feel counter to an entrepreneurial culture to put any kind of bureaucracy in place that may inhibit an “all hands on deck” spirit. There is often a sense from founders of early stage companies that employees do not want this structure or will be turned off by being labeled and leveled. 


I have found that quite the opposite is true.  In times of rapid scaling, this lack of structure can lead to chaotic growth and frustrated teams, leaving employees craving clarity. The right amount of structure eliminates noise and confusion, provides a welcome sense of focus, and sets employees up to deliver even greater impact through periods of change.


Introducing Clear Expectations


Getting clear on expectations is often the hardest and most overlooked part of the performance review equation, especially in fast growing, fast changing companies.  There are several ways to approach expectation setting, a few of which are suggested below. The key to each is keeping it as simple as possible, while providing as much clarity as is practical. These expectations are not necessarily detailed descriptions of workload (i.e. not job descriptions), and do not need to be function-specific. Rather they are an objective starting point for ongoing discussion.


  • What / How Statements: The simplest approach is a set of statements that outline at the highest level the expectations of both what is delivered (i.e. high-quality, timely completion of assignments) and how employees are asked to interact and behave, often a reflection of the company's core values. 


  • Level Frameworks: If levels are in place, defining the expectations of each level in terms of scope, autonomy, and expertise, along with a set of company-specific behavioral skills (i.e. communication, collaboration and/or growth mindset) is a highly effective foundation for performance (and my personal favorite).


  • Goals/OKRs: If you have a strong and consistent goal-setting practice, individual goals certainly provide clear expectations. However, the caution with leaning too heavily on goals is that they must be perceived as stable, achievable and equitable to be viewed as a fair expectation against which to assess performance. In most high growth and fast moving companies, the pace of work moves more quickly than goal setting practices can keep up with, making them an unstable measure of performance.



However you approach expectation setting, the result should be shared, revisited and reviewed regularly with employees. The truth is, what you define may be less important than how and how often you discuss them. Employees should know, understand and remember these expectations (or at least where to find them) easily. Once engrained, they become the foundation of your performance review. 


Building Expectations into Your Performance Review


With a clear set of expectations in hand, you can build a performance review that assesses those expectations as performance standards.  The simplest approach is to assess the employee against each expectation using a rating system, with limited opportunity to comment.  Here are some examples, using the expectation options listed above


What/How Statements:



Levels Frameworks:



Goals/OKRs:




While ratings have come in and out of favor in past 20 years, when well calibrated, they are a clear and objective indicator of achievement, and have some real benefits for the quality of the performance review systems:


  • Less open-text: Using ratings limits the amount of open text writing a manager needs to do. For managers with large teams, open text is time consuming and exhausting.  For others, writing is not a strength and feedback ends up confusing or inarticulate. More importantly, open text review questions are proven to introduce bias. By shifting to expectation-based, rated questions, you are able to significantly mitigate the unconscious bias that regularly enters performance review processes. 


  • More data: Rating each expectation provides significantly more nuanced data for calibration and ongoing talent management programs. Instead of one (or no) data point, you have many.  With multiple “sub-ratings” for each employee, you can see whether the overall performance rating (if included) is an accurate reflection of the sub-ratings, or if other factors are influencing the outcome. At a macro level, you gain understanding of the overall strengths and weaknesses in the organization and can build your talent plan accordingly.


  • Nuanced feedback: Perhaps most useful, a performance review with expectation-specific ratings allows managers to share very specific feedback to an employee about an area of improvement, without fear of “sinking” their overall rating or ultimate compensation decision. For example, an employee who is exceeding expectations in the work they deliver, but needs improvement in collaboration, may still meet expectations overall (and therefore be eligible for a raise, etc) but gets valuable and direct feedback on a critical area of development.


I recommend a three-point scale for simplicity and because it most concretely answers the question, “did I meet the expectation?” The answer is either “Yes you did” (meets expectations), “No you did not” (needs improvement) or “Actually, you did better than expected!” (exceeds expectations).  


The first time I implemented a system like this, I was concerned that employees might feel overwhelmed by getting so many ratings - we had 7 expectations we assessed. However, through conversations with employees I learned that, in fact, the clarity and simplicity was welcome. One employee told me that they, “knew exactly what they needed to do to perform their job and exactly what they needed to do to get promoted.” If this isn’t the purpose of performance reviews, I don’t know what is. 


What about Developmental Feedback?


While I don’t believe a performance review should be overly focused on development, an expectations-based performance review is certainly not void of it. Too often, development conversations lack a grounding in a clear understanding of performance in the role today. How can one grow into the next role if they are not performing their current job effectively? If development areas are selected without knowing the expectations for the current or future job, how will they become ready for the next step? Often, growth starts with learning within the role, before it can lead to promotion or new responsibilities. 


With a clear assessment of each expectation, development conversations will come naturally within the areas that are not yet being met, or if all expectations are being met, the expectation of the next level or role. With a clear understanding of performance as a starting point, development plans and conversations are a natural and easy next step of the performance review and should be revisited throughout the year. Even the most eager performers will feel grounded and clear on what they need to do to continue to succeed and thrive.


In Summary


A performance culture does not need to be harsh, unsafe or adversarial. Rather, it can be an unbelievably clear and transparent foundation from which to motivate, develop and reward employees fairly and accurately. Taking the time to align on expectations and simply and effectively communicating performance against those expectations will put performance reviews back on the map as an HR program with real return on investment for employees, leaders and the business. 


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