When the last school bells ring in summer, the corporate world prepares for its own tribute to the season — mid-year performance reviews.

When managers set performance objectives for employees at the beginning of the year, the objectives should be multi-dimensional (“what?” and “how?”) objectives that are delivered over time. Many line managers seem to think they can give an employee a bucket of objectives in January, disappear for 12 months and then show up in December to administer performance reviews and expect the conversation to be productive. In this scenario, a manager will invariably surprise the employee with some elements of the feedback. Wacko, right?

Many managers believe they have provided their employees with sufficient performance feedback “in real time” throughout the year. They diligently provide both positive and constructive feedback on a weekly basis: brief hallway comments, verbal feedback over the desk or at the end of meetings, phone calls and the odd sticky note left on the employee’s laptop screen. For many employees, these ad-hoc comments from their line manager feel more like tips, advice or coaching than “performance feedback.” When written down and connected to a performance review, that same information can have a dramatically different impact.

Hence, a formal, mid-year review is a powerful, albeit woefully underutilized, tool in every line manager’s toolbox. Mid-year reviews afford line managers the opportunity to summarize all feedback they’ve provided to their employee during the first half of the year. It is an opportunity to ensure that the employee and the manager are on the same page — that the employee has, in fact, heardand understood all of the messages the manager intended to deliver. If so, it is a good platform to co-create the action plan for the balance of the year. If not, it becomes a welcome opportunity for both parties to recalibrate.

Is this task hard? Definitely not. Does a mid-year review take a lot of time? It shouldn’t. The time required will vary with the seniority and complexity of the role being reviewed. Many managers discover that, when done correctly, mid-year reviews are the most impactful and productive 20, 30 or 60 minutes they invest with an employee all year.

mistakes to avoid in mid-year performance reviews

When delivering tough performance messages to an employee, time is of the essence. Managers are far better off delivering the messages mid-year when the employee still has time to course correct. Regardless of how hard the employee takes the feedback, delivering the following message is critical: “That’s why I wanted us to have this conversation now — while we have time to work together toward a better outcome by year-end.” What employee would be discouraged to hear their boss offering to help co-create a corrective action plan?

Can a mid-year review make a difference? Can people change that quickly?

Absolutely! The key is to ensure that feedback is fact based and actionable. Provide clear examples. Help employees see the impact, positive or negative, of the choices they made. Then clearly articulate what “better” looks like. What specific changes are expected from the employee to drive different outcomes? Even when the feedback is very constructive (aka negative), most employees will walk away from a robust mid-year review discussion saying, “I really appreciate that my boss was honest with me and helped me understand specific actions I can take to improve my performance.”

In my experience, employees generally come to work every day with the intention of doing a good job for their organization. When managers treat employees with respect, provide clear instructions and reasonable coaching, employees tend to work hard to meet or exceed the expectations placed upon them.

Three important things to remember about mid-year reviews

1) Don’t just have another conversation.

Sure, the mid-year review should be a face-to-face conversation to allow both parties to ask questions, share examples and obtain clarity. However, the conversation does need to be summarized in writing to have the desired impact — that’s a fundamental point.

To employees, there’s something very significant about written messages. Countless times I have repeated messages in writing that I previously shared verbally only to have the employee respond, “Oh wow! I had no idea. I’m really glad you told me.” When it comes to performance feedback, repetition of key messages (whether positive or constructive) is a very good thing. So, even if it’s simply an email to summarize the conversation, be sure to write down the key performance headlines as well as the specific action items you agreed on.

2) Don’t make it a long drawn-out meeting.

The mid-year review doesn’t have to be long. Depending on the role, a meeting as short as 15 minutes could have great impact. The keys to success are:

  • Concise headlines: Ideally three, but maximum five key messages.
  • Clear examples: Be prepared to review specific situations. When did it occur? What did you observe the employee do/not do? What impact did you see as a result of the employee’s actions? How did that affect the team, the company or you as the manager? What would have worked better?
  • Balance: Don’t just focus on constructive feedback. Make sure you acknowledge the good things the employee is doing as well.
  • Don’t monopolize the dialog. Allow plenty of time for questions from the employee to ensure he or she understands and accepts the validity of your feedback. Dumping a bunch of constructive messages on an employee and abruptly ending the discussion would not be particularly effective. If finishing the conversation in the allotted time is impossible, just schedule a follow-up session shortly afterwards. Encourage the employee to reflect on the feedback and come to the next session with specific ideas on how to stretch positive performance or improve lackluster performance.

3) Don’t dance around difficult messages.

A common mistake that line managers make is assuming that employees will automatically understand the manager’s overall performance rating from hints or examples delivered during the verbal conversation.

Whatever the overall assessment of the employee’s performance, tell the employee, “Clearly we’re only halfway through the rating period, but if I were writing your year-end review right now, I would rate you __________.” Regardless of whether the rating is “Below Expectations,” “Meets Expectations” or “Exceeds Expectations,” it is an important message for the employee to hear directly.

Clarify that, with several months of the rating period remaining, the rating is simply a rating of performance to date and not a promise or threat around the ultimate rating for the full year.

The bottom line is that mid-year performance reviews are a powerful tool in every manager’s toolbox. Are you making the best use of it with your employees?