No one really likes conducting performance reviews. But for some reason, lawyers seem particularly averse to providing feedback. Perhaps it’s because much of the work lawyers do themselves is based on individual performance, or because few lawyers are trained in the art of staff or attorney supervision. Also, giving reviews is a formal way of delivering feedback that might have negative elements and, despite their alleged penchant for dealing well with conflict, lawyers do not like delivering any kind of bad news.
It’s Only Fair to Give People Feedback
It’s important, though, that people who work for you get regular, honest and constructive feedback about their performance so they can continue to improve. It just isn’t fair, for example, to keep your young associate in the dark about how you think she is doing and then blame her for failing to improve. So, with that in mind, here are some ways you can make the performance review process more palatable.
- Make sure the job description content matches the content of the review form. Review forms can be generic or overly general. Make sure you take the opportunity to customize your review forms for each position you are evaluating. Yes, you want to make sure you are evaluating everyone in a particular job class on the same criteria, but the content of the form doesn’t have to be generic for all employees. Also, give the persons you are reviewing a chance to see the form long before the review takes place. They should know, in black and white, the criteria that will be used to evaluate their job performance. Give them a chance to ask questions about the format and the evaluation process. You may find out your forms are not as clear as you thought. Learning that beforehand is so much better than afterwards!
- Have your people do self-evaluations. Most people have a good awareness of how they are performing in their job. If there is a fairly close match between how your reviewees perceive their performance and how you do, you know you are on the right track in terms of your supervisory skills. If there is great disparity, you may learn you haven’t been providing enough feedback. Be sure to let people know up front, when you describe the review process, that you will be asking them to evaluate themselves in writing.
- Don’t focus the entire review on the past six weeks. We all have short memories, but when it comes to reviews it is true that you will remember events from the recent past more than those that occurred six months ago. In addition, both the big mistakes and significant victories stand out more clearly than day-to-day performance. This is another reason you want to ask for self-reviews—those being reviewed are far more likely to remember events from throughout the year.
- Let them read your review of them in advance. Being asked to read and respond to their evaluations during the review meeting puts most people in something of a state of shock. For a better review session, give them a chance to digest the feedback several days in advance so they can think about the content before responding. Don’t be surprised, of course, if people come prepared to refute some of your feedback. If the content of the review is fair, that shouldn’t be a problem. If it isn’t, you should be glad to hear it and make appropriate changes.
- Avoid surprises. Nothing discussed during a performance review should come as a surprise. If something comes as a shock, it means you have not been delivering sufficient feedback during the year. Also, feedback shouldn’t be anonymous. Others who are asked to provide information about their experience with the reviewee should have the courage to put their names on the reviews they provide.
- Keep them invested. Almost everyone walks away from a review focused on the negative feedback, not the kudos. While it is important to give a balanced review, and to discuss the areas in need of improvement, remember that you are trying to give a report that will encourage each of your people to stay engaged in their work. Telling them what they are doing well can help keep them invested.
Lastly, consider this. Some employers are doing away with the annual review and opting for a more continuous feedback loop instead. They are finding that in today’s fast-paced work environment, a single snapshot provided once a year simply does not account for how people work. Some also believe that the reviews are too subjective and political to provide useful feedback. The bottom line is that with or without an annual review, you need to learn how to give feedback in an ongoing way—because you should be doing it all the time.
Wendy Werner is a career coach and practice management consultant for lawyers and professional services firms and an award-winning photographer. She writes the Careers column for the ABA’s Law Practice magazine, and is a frequent contributor to The St. Louis Lawyer and Law Practice Today. Wendy has a master’s degree in Personnel Administration and Counseling from Indiana University and served as the Assistant Dean of Career Services at Saint Louis University School of Law. Find her at Werner Associates, LLC.