How to conduct your first performance review

8 min read
Alan Taylor

Managing employees isn’t just about telling them what to do. It’s also about growing them in their roles, helping them explore their career path and giving them feedback. The best way to do this is through a performance review. But, there's a lot to know if you haven't done one.

No, you can’t just look at the figures and tell them where they need to improve.

While figures have their place, they don’t show the whole picture. They don’t tell you that Julie’s computer crashes three times per day and that’s why she takes four times longer to do payroll. They don’t tell you that Steve in design has been trying to send a file off to the printing firm and he’s spent an hour on the phone with them because it stops halfway.

A performance review requires taking the time to sit face-to-face and discuss individual performance. And it's a great time to not only give feedback but to receive it.

So, here are some tips to help you and your employee get the most out of your first review.

10 tips on acing your first performance review

Never reviewed anyone before? Just remember: no matter how nervous you are, your employee is far more nervous. Follow these tips to keep things positive.

  1. Be a coach, not a judge.
  2. A performance review shouldn’t be scary.
  3. Use other people’s feedback.
  4. Be on the same page.
  5. Take time to listen.
  6. Don’t get defensive.
  7. Frame your questions effectively.
  8. Be careful with your words.
  9. Be clear about their role in the business.
  10. Avoid bias.

As you read our 10 tips, you’ll find performance review examples woven throughout.

1. Be a coach, not a judge

Performance Review Restaurant Worker
Start the review by listing what your employee is doing right. Everyone loves this.

A performance review is not the time for discipline. It’s a time to coach your employees, to help them on their career path and to get the best out of them.

If you judge their performance, then everything you say will fall on deaf ears and you’ll get nothing in return. It’s not great for them or the future of your business.

One pro tip is to start the review by listing all the things the employee is doing right. Take a few moments to relive their successes with them. Only then will you introduce one or two things you’d like them to work on in the next month/quarter/year.

This sets the tone for the whole conversation, opening the listener to your requests.

2. A performance review shouldn’t be scary

The words ‘annual review’ can cause anxiety and dread. Take the fear out by inviting the employee to help set the goals they’ll be measured against on the next review.

Ask employees to set goals that will help the business meet its yearly goals.

This means, of course, you’ll not only have to set annual business goals, but share them with your employees.

If you encourage them to set their own goals, then they'll have a list of accomplishments to look forward to sharing at their review.

3. Use other people’s feedback

Your employees will see things you won’t because they work closely together. Schedule one-on-one meetings to see how the team is performing and what each employee brings to it. As a manager, it’s imperative you know the challenges your people face and how they move through them.

Is your employee one of those people who quietly achieves great things without fanfare? Their peers will know, so ask them if there are any achievements to reward. You can bet your employee will be secretly pleased that you know.

4. Be on the same page

Take the anxiety out of the review by sharing your notes with your employee ahead of time for them to add notes of their own.

This way it becomes more of a two-way conversation, with the bonus that you’ll both get the best out of the meeting.

5. Take time to listen

Some people take time to warm up. If you go rushing into the review with your points, then the results could be disastrous for you and the employee. They may get defensive and finish the meeting with a negative attitude, which isn’t a productive outcome.

When you ask questions, repeat back to them what you hear them say in answer.

Even if you’re rushed, it’s important the employee feels you have time to really focus on them.

6. Don’t get defensive

Performance Review Two Men High Five

There may be feedback that's uncomfortable for you to hear. After all, employee performance can reflect your managerial performance. But if you handle their comments in the right manner, saying perhaps that you’d like to think about what they’ve said before responding in one week, the results of the meeting could be great for both of you. Just be sure to follow up when you promise to.

7. Frame your questions effectively

Your first performance review can be nerve-wracking, but great questions can see you through. lists 10 questions you can adapt to fit your work culture. They include:

  • What was your greatest accomplishment at work?
  • What do you hope to achieve over the coming year?
  • Where do you feel there’s room for you to improve?
  • Do you have everything you need to do your job?

Note the words: feel, comfortable, hope, and need. They are personal words and can build trust between you and your employee.

Again, take time to listen.

8. Be careful with your words

Words can cut, heal or empower, so it’s important to choose your words ahead of time.


  • Stay positive. You’ll get far better responses to your questions and observations.
  • Highlight good performance, explain why it was good.
  • Use powerful verbs like achieved, delivered, enhanced, gained, improved, refined, etc.


  • Be vague. You can leave yourself open to misinterpretation.
  • Imply good performance was because of luck. A lot of hard work goes on behind ‘luck’ or ‘overnight success.’
  • Be negative. Say instead “One thing I’d love to see you do this year is…”

9. Be clear about their role in the business

Explain to your employee their role in the business and how their performance is measured in that role. If you manage a call centre, then you could share with them:

  • How many calls they’ve taken
  • How many they’ve resolved at first point of contact
  • The average rating that callers gave them

This helps the employee focus on their how they’re doing their job and improve their skills in those areas.

Share with your employee how their performance (good or bad) has impacted their team and their workplace. Be clear and concise; being vague can cause confusion.

10. Avoid bias

Performance Review Two Men Talking
We all carry unconscious biases; address yours before you review your employee

We all have biases, despite our best intentions. They make up who we are and are the basis of most of our decisions and judgements.

Taking them into the performance review can cause problems, because they can lead to unjust assumptions. Here are two very common biases:

Recency bias

This bias remembers the past few months and forgets the months before that. A person may have had a great year, but in the past few months the quality or quantity of their work has dropped.

Focussing only on the past few months is unfair given their performance over the year.

It’s a great opportunity for you to show them the manager you are and ask what’s changed and if you can help.

Gender bias

As much as we like to think the workplace is getting better, a study by Stanford researchers found that women were more likely to receive vague rather than specific feedback.

“Women were more likely to be told, for example, to “do more work in person” with no explanation about the issue to overcome or the goal of the change. Men were more likely to receive longer reviews that focused on their technical skills, compared to shorter reviews for women that were more concerned with their communication skills.”

Keep this is mind as you make notes before each review. For more information on biases and how to keep them out of your employee evaluations, read this article.

Now schedule the next conversation

You’ve made it through your first performance review, and you feel good with how it went. But don’t stop there. Remember the goals you asked your employee to set?

Make a time to follow up.

This could be next week, next month or at the half-year mark. Because the more positive interest you show in your employee, the more they’ll be likely to achieve their goals and grow. And employee growth is great for business growth.

Start using these performance review examples now

So now you know that performance reviews shouldn't be the big bad boss pointing her finger at the employees and telling them to “work harder, work longer.” And they shouldn't be done half-heartedly or in a hurry. Done correctly, reviews are a valuable tool that can steadily improve your work process and take your business to the next level.