Thoughts on writing reviews…

Well, it is that time of year again here Microsoft – time for managers to write employee reviews (they are due 9/15 folks ;-)).  While this is the subject of much Dilbert-style joking, I thought it would be useful for me to write down a few of my opinions, habits, and observations about actually writing a performance review…   Other Softies have thoughts?  Does any of this resonate with folks outside of Microsoft?  Any horror stories from your past reviews?




·         Writing is thinking – Don’t just barrel through the writing of the review, as you write, spend some time thinking about the employee, what is the overall message they need to hear?  “Kicking butt”, “fix this one thing”, “Get in shape”, etc.  Be sure the review overall carries home that point.  I spend about an hour per review actually writing. 


·         Use the 3rd person – I chose to use the 3rd person when writing reviews.  For example “Bob is kicking some butt…” rather 2nd person, “you are kicking some butt”.  It helps me as the author think about a future manager reading the review so I include the right detail for her.  It also helps me be a little more clear in giving constructive feedback and for some employees the detachment helps it sync in better. 


·         Feedback locality – There are three location in the template where I give feedback and for three very different reasons. 

o   In line with the employees assessment of their performance – Here I highlight what I think the important things were, agreeing or clarifying what the employee said and filling in context or important details left out.  I think of this as fairly conversational.

o   In the commitment rating section – I do the 2-3 strengths and the same number of growth areas each punctuated by feedback quotes

o   In the contribution section – I make brief comments about the employees relative rating on the curve and what their long term prospects look like. 

I do all of these with tract changes on and prefix my comments with “[BradA]” so any reader can easily see my comments.


·         Let it settle – I always like to write the review at least a week before the review 1-1 so I can have a chance to re-read it and\or let my manager read it to ensure the message I am trying to convey pops out.  Written communication can be very one-dimensional and the added stress of having it part of their “permanent record” can exacerbate even minor issues. 


·         Pick your battles – It is NOT necessary to include every bad (or good) thing the employee did this period.  Focus on the blocking ones, the items that are keeping them from being really effective.  Focus on actionable, attainable feedback.


·         Everyone has room to grow – Even your star employee who just got a promo and Exceeded\Outstanding could be doing something better.  It is very likely that their positives far outweigh their growth areas, but you still owe it to them to point them out.  One way I have found to think about it (and communicate it) is to consider how the expectations for the next level are going up.  For example: “As Bob continues up in level, he will need to think more strategically about how the team overall uses resources”.


·         Beware of the strength overdone is a weakness – I have seen a pattern where an employee’s biggest strength can be a weakness when it is overdone.  For example an employee with an amazing drive to get things done, can sometimes be seen a railroading issues or not listening to feedback.  Help the employee think through where the line is, but you don’t want them lose the strength while they work on the weakness.


·         Avoid absolutes -  I generally avoid absolutes when given constructive  feedback such as “Bob never finishes his specs on time” or “Beth always interups her co-workers”.  It is likely the employee can find a counter example which will rob your feedback of some of its power.  Keep the focus on the behavior that needs to be addressed. 


·         Balance the feedback  - While it is certainly not true that all employees have an equal weight of good and bad things to give feedback on, I do try to give the same number of good and bad feedback points, even while clearly highlighting the most important issue. This helps to show the employee that you are trying to be balanced and you are seeing the good work they are doing.


·         Enhance their strengths and minimize the impact of their weaknesses – The goal is not to “fix” employees weakness.  I have found it far more effective to identify the employees strengths and put them in a place where those strengths can be even more impactful rather than continuing to focus on the same weakness over and over again.  Figure out how to put them in the place where their known weakness are not a huge blocker for them. 


·         360 degree feedback – I put a very high priority on getting feedback from an employee’s peers…  as a PM, their opinions taken in aggregate are a pretty good barometer of their overall effectiveness.  However, you never get 100% good data, every person is different and no feedback can be taken as gospel.  As such, I only include feedback that resonate with me… that is that I have seen similar behavior or experiences.    I also try to work the feedback into the major points I am trying to make.  As a manager, I prefer the coaching type of role where I can say “here is the feedback we are seeing let’s have a discussion about  how we can effectively address it”.  Rather than the not-so-helpful “I think you have this problem, here is how you should fix it”.  It is often interesting to note that 360 feedback often misses important areas you should fill in… things like coaching of employees or the task that was never done because no one know they had it!




Comments (11)

  1. John says:

    my friend had 3 below-average reviews and Microsoft canned him after 12 good years. then he came back immediately as a contractor and they said, ‘oh hey, we want to hire you!’ but wisely he left for a startup. what a sham the politics of reviews can add up to. it’s inevitable and i’m not saying i’ve got a better idea for you. but for me, as a contractor, my review is getting extended or getting sent home. i get to read between the lines. i probably had five managers at microsoft, and i can think of two that had freaky problems with idiocy or obsessive control. why should their opinions impact my future? give up the illusion of employment security and gain a whole lot of freedom.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Irony : A typo in the sentence "Writing is thinking – Don’t just barrel though the writing of …"

  3. Vikram says:


    Good points to be looked at while reviewing. Whenever reviewing anything I will look at these points

  4. Steven Smith says:

    Good things to keep in mind, Brad.  Thanks for posting them.


  5. BradA says:

    Thanks for pointing out the typo.. I do think typos and thinking are different things 😉

  6. encapsul2 says:

    Oh the wohs of reviews.  They are so subjective sometimes but when managing my team I have found that comparing individuals to a) goals or b) job descriptions is a way for people to see how they performed based on what was expected of them.  Of course there are many things that fall outside that formula, but at least it gives folks a clearer idea of how they are being evaluated.

  7. sasserstyl says:

    An interesting topic Brad – thanks for your take on it.

    Two things:

    First, the manager needs to reflect on how he has worked for the employee over the past few months.

    You can have an employee with star potential who is underperforming because of YOU, the manager.  Should they get a bad review in this instance?

    As a manager, you largely create the environment within which your team members work and you should try and recognise your own failings and take these into account.

    Secondly, ensure that you don’t end up believing the HR bullsh*t about how reviews are a "process".

    Reviews are *always* subjective finger-in-the-air events. In technology, you can be sure your employees are intelligent enough to see through any facade of "meeting objectives" BS.


Skip to main content