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What Should I Do Before The Meeting?

Here’s a quick assessment tool to help you effectively prepare for the performance-review meeting:

Pre-Meeting Activities Checklist

  • Gather information and materials.
  • Choose a convenient time.
  • Pick an appropriate place.
  • Consider facilities and room arrangement.
  • Determine the agenda.
  • Give the individual a copy of the appraisal to read in advance of the meeting.
  • Arrange for work coverage.
  • Plan the way you want the meeting to go.

Tell Me More

Gather information and materials. The most important item you need to have is, of course, a copy of the individual’s performance appraisal. But that’s not all.

At the beginning of the year you and the individual had a performance-planning meeting. The individual should have taken notes on a blank copy of the appraisal form and made a copy for you. That document has all of the key items that you discussed during the meeting : Be sure you have a copy of that planning document in case a question about the original goals comes up.

You’ll also need information about the individual’s performance, particularly if there are some areas where the performance varied significantly from your expectations. Whether the variation was in a positive or negative direction, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate why you assigned the rating that you did. If the assessment is that the individual’s performance was less than you desired, it is then critically important that you have all of the evidence you used to come to that unacceptable or fair appraisal rating.

You may want to have a copy of the individual’s development plan. You may want to have copies of weekly reports that the individual submitted that described progress against the goals that were set.

What are the key points that you want to cover during the discussion? In addition to having a copy of the appraisal, write down a list of the most important items you want to discuss. It’s easy to refer to them during the meeting to make sure that everything that needs to be discussed gets covered.

You can’t make a mistake by having too much support material. It will prevent the embarrassment of being unable to find anything of substance to justify the rating you gave.

Choose a convenient time. When is the best time to hold a performance appraisal discussion? There isn’t any one particular time that is ideal—mornings or afternoons, early or late in the week, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is having enough time. Wise managers set a specific time for a performance review—perhaps sixty minutes—and announce at the beginning of the meeting just how long they have budgeted for the discussion. They also make sure that the next activity scheduled for after the appraisal discussion is one that is either a low priority (so that it can be rescheduled) or highly flexible (like working on a long-range plan). It may turn out that more time is needed to discuss some sensitive items that arise during the discussion. It may also be that the performance appraisal discussion turns into a highly creative brainstorming session that needs to continue beyond the one hour schedule. Make sure there’s enough time for unexpected events to play out.

Pick an appropriate place. Probably most performance appraisal discussions take place in the manager’s office, with the manager behind the desk and the appraisee sitting directly in front of it.

Is that the best place to hold the discussion? It may well be, particularly if the appraisal is not very good and the manager wants to trot out all of the power and authority available to make the subordinate understand that immediate change is necessary. But too often the authoritarian, boss-behind-the-desk arrangement emphasizes the power relationship at a time when a more collegial approach might be more effective.

More important than the actual location where the discussion ends up is the decision-making process the manager engages in to determine that location. Too often, managers conduct the appraisal discussion behind their desks by default—they haven’t given any thought to the matter and just let it happen in the place where they are most comfortable.

Consider facilities and room arrangement. There are several other alternatives possible. The manager’s office might not offer complete privacy, particularly if walls are thin or it’s a cubicle arrangement. In this case a conference room or the temporarily vacant office of an out-of town senior manager might be pressed into service. If the appraisal contains good news and the two participants in the appraisal drama are old colleagues, it might best be conducted over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. And if it is conducted in the manager’s office, just a little furniture rearrangement might reduce the hierarchical nature of the discussion.

If the performance appraisal does indeed contain bad news, and particularly if the manager believes that it will take a dramatic gesture to bring home the message of ‘‘change or else,’’ the appraiser’s boss’s office might be a good location. Having your boss give you your performance appraisal in her boss’s office—with her boss sitting in as an observer/reinforcer—certainly communicates the seriousness of the message being delivered.

But beware the unusual location. The district sales manager who gives one of her sales reps his annual performance appraisal while the two of them are in the car, driving down the highway en route to a new prospect’s office, is exercising bad judgment. So, too, is any manager who selects a location significantly away from a business setting, unless the necessity for conducting the performance review at that time, in that location is obvious to both players.

Determine the agenda. How are you going to kick off the discussion? What are the first words you plan to say? Will you review the performance appraisal section by section, or do you want to start with the final rating and move backward from there? When are you going to review the employee’s self-appraisal?

All of these questions will be answered by the time the performance review is completed. Too often, though, they are answered simply because ‘‘it just happened that way’’—the manager gave no thought to the sequence of events that he wanted to follow.

A better approach is to have an agenda for the meeting. The agenda need not be written down (although that would be a good idea), but the manager needs to decide in advance how he wants to conduct the discussion.

Give the individual a copy of the appraisal to read in advance of the meeting. Before I became a consultant, I spent fifteen years working for three large corporations: General Electric, United Airlines, and PepsiCo. Each one of those companies had a rigorous performance appraisal system; each of my bosses took the process seriously.

But each one of my bosses followed the same clumsy procedure when the day came for my performance appraisal discussion. At the time we had set for the meeting, I would walk into his office and sit down. He would hand me the appraisal. I would crank up all of my speed-reading skills and whip through the multipage document just as fast as I could, eager to see all of the things my boss had said about me (probably missing a lot of the subtlety and nuance as I raced through it). My boss, meanwhile, sitting behind his desk, would make believe that he was involved in doing something important while I was reading, but it was obvious that his antennae were out, surreptitiously glancing at me, trying to gauge from my reactions how I was taking it.

What a bumbling way to start the meeting!

Here’s a far better way to get the meeting off to an efficient, business-like start. An hour or two before the appraisal meeting is scheduled to start, get together with Sam. Hand him the performance appraisal. Say, ‘‘Sam, at 1:30 this afternoon we’re going to get together for your performance review. Here it is. I’d like you to read this so that you’re prepared for our meeting this afternoon. Feel free to write any questions directly on the form, or highlight anything that you want to be sure we talk about. See you then.’’

Sam now has an hour or two that he can use to read carefully what you have written, at his own pace. He can reflect on the things you’ve said without having to immediately defend or explain himself. He can jot down notes and think of questions he’d like to ask.

If you ask people to complete a self-appraisal, you can also ask for it at the same time that you give them a copy of your official appraisal. (That is, if you haven’t asked them to send it to you earlier, so you can use it as an information source in completing the official appraisal.) You too will be more relaxed and better prepared by being able to read in an unpressured way what the individual has written about herself.

Red Flag

If the person you’re appraising is a marginal performer with a bad rating, wait until the beginning of the meeting to hand over the appraisal. This increases your control of the situation.

Arrange for work coverage. If you don’t have someone to answer your phone and you can’t switch the phone to send all calls directly into voice mail, then make a firm decision to simply ignore any phone calls that come in during the meeting. Steal a ‘‘Do Not Disturb’’ sign from the next hotel room you stay in and put it on the door handle of the room where you’re meeting. Tell your staff and colleagues to follow the ‘‘thousand-mile rule’’—don’t disturb you with anything unless it’s of the same urgency that they would track you down and interrupt you if you were a thousand miles away.

Plan the way you want the meeting to go. There’s a technique called creative visualization that professional athletes and motivational speakers claim to use. The night before a performance appraisal discussion, as you are drifting off to sleep, imagine yourself in the meeting with Sally. You see her walking into your office. You hear yourselves talking—not the actual words, but the tone of voice, the businesslike but friendly discussion.

You hear Sally ask you difficult questions; you hear your own voice responding confidently. You see yourself responding in a comfortable and untroubled way to the most sensitive issues that arise, as though you’re watching yourself in a movie. As you finally drift off to sleep, you envision the meeting drawing to a close. Your confidence, poise, and self-possession are manifest as sleep finally overtakes you.

By visualizing success, so the theory goes, your unconscious mind will guide you toward its fulfillment.