It’s performance review time. You’ve downloaded a form that may work okay with a few revisions. You’ve explained to your managers that they have to schedule reviews and submit the paperwork to you within a particular timeframe — or you’ve set that goal for yourself. You’re ready to go, right?

Tips for Crafting Performance Reviews

You think you know the drill. You give your employees a realistic view of their performance, good and bad, together with some guidelines for improvement and growth. The process itself is the de rigueur prelude to pay increases, bonuses, or possibly layoffs. You ask for feedback from employees and managers, but typically get very little. All too often you come away from the experience feeling that you’ve either missed an opportunity or wasted everybody’s time.

Performance reviews can be stressful for both parties involved, but offering guidance in a review format can be a positive and helpful team building strategy — if you do it right. These tips will help you craft a performance review program that will work for everyone involved.

Do your homework. There are hundreds of canned forms for performance reviews. They’re a quick and easy way to get started if you’ve never conducted reviews before. The problem is that they’re usually too general to be very helpful. A lack of feedback can make an employee feel confused and directionless, and generic feedback is almost as bad as no feedback at all. A list of core competencies along with a grading system and a schedule for improvement may look and sound great, but if the items aren’t specific to the job or person being reviewed, the boilerplate approach will fall flat. A good review program is built not bought. It incorporates real world metrics, examples and recommendations.

Think of every position in your company as brand new. How would you describe each function? What strengths would your ideal employee have? What tasks, skills and goals are essential for the position? How do you see the position growing over the next year or two? Make up a blueprint for the position. The more specific your approach is, the more useful your review program will become. Once you have an outline and plan for a particular job, you can use it from year to year with a few modifications. If the idea building a performance review matrix sounds too daunting, get your employees to help. No one knows a job better than the person doing it.

Be specific. You can’t expect your employees to read your mind. Employees relate to specific information presented in a way that is actionable. To conduct an effective performance review you need real world examples, and that requires preparation, probably over a period of months.

Let’s say that your admin is a great employee whose only real flaw is trying to do too much. She keeps vital information to herself, even when asked to share, but it’s hard to fault her because she’s a studious and thorough worker. Last month she was sick a couple of days, and important tasks had to wait because no one else knew how to complete them. This is an example of a communication skill your administrative assistant needs to work on. Once the topic is under discussion in a performance review, you can work together to identify ways she can address the problem. You might recommend that she put together a procedural manual for her desk. She could counter that she needs to hire temporary help to do that. You could then discuss streamlining some procedures to make them easier for others to understand. Good examples and concrete goals help make reviews more interactive, productive, and effective.

Be honest. Many supervisors hesitate to mention minor issues because they don’t want to offend or alienate workers. The problem with this approach is that the “pesky” issues probably won’t go away until they are addressed. If an employee maintains a very messy cubicle or conducts loud personal calls on his break that disturb fellow workers, he may not realize that his actions are offensive or disruptive. Problem behaviors that may be awkward but not extreme enough to warrant censure can be addressed as line items in the comment section of a review. They’ll be on the record as one of many items, some positive, that are discussed. Constructive feedback is good. It gives an employee a heads up. It clears the air.

The performance review is a tool. When it’s done well, it can improve your small business by providing a forum where you can discuss problems with employees, praise them, offer concrete suggestions, get valuable feedback, and establish future goals. It’s a time consuming process, but once it becomes a regular part of your management strategy, it will help you unlock the dynamic potential of your workforce.