Frequently Asked Questions About Performance Evaluations

Last updated: August 23, 2021
Estimated reading time: 7 min


Have questions about performance evaluations? We’ve got answers.

1. Is it okay to bring up an issue in an evaluation that I’ve never raised before? How do I frame it if I do?

We often remind managers that nothing in a performance evaluation should be a surprise because (ideally) you’ve been giving the staff member feedback throughout the year—through regular check-ins and stepbacks. We don’t recommend “saving” feedback for the evaluation because the longer you wait, the less effective it’ll be. That said, we know evaluations provide time to think more deeply about how a staff member is doing and this means you might spot trends or simply think to frame something differently. If you find yourself in this situation, pause and reflect. If it’s truly the first time you are raising an issue (a strength, an area for improvement, or a concrete example), it’s usually best to save it for a check-in rather than the formal performance evaluation. If the issue seems important to mention (whether it’s praise or an area for improvement), make sure you explicitly acknowledge that you should have shared it sooner. You could say, “I realize I’ve never brought this up before, but in reflecting on how things went this year, this occurred to me as something important to discuss.”

2. What if we didn’t set goals or set expectations about the “how”?

To be successful in their role, staff need to understand how you expect them to approach their work, just as clearly as they know what they’re responsible for achieving. It’s hard to fairly evaluate how well someone demonstrated “adaptability” or “inclusive leadership” if those expectations were never communicated—and defined within the context of the role (“pushes work forward through obstacles, which inevitably arise, and actively seeks input from others”). If this is the case, consider reframing how you evaluate competencies in the written evaluation; turn it into a reflection and discussion instead. Do an assessment (and having your staff do a self-assessment) that answers the following questions:

  • What mindsets, practices, or values did the staff member demonstrate well? How did those approaches help them get results and uphold organizational values?
  • What mindsets, practices, or values could the staff member work on going forward? How will this show up in (and positively impact) their area of work?
  • Summarize: What competencies should they demonstrate in the coming evaluation period?

Focus less on the ratings and more on the narrative portions of the evaluation. Use the conversation to get aligned on what went well, what could have been better, and the expectations moving forward.

3. How much should we take context or extenuating circumstances into account when assessing results?

It’s not only reasonable to take context into account: it’s important. We encourage managers to “hold the bigger picture,” weighing effort and context alongside results while working to build the kind of relationship where you can talk openly about challenges that impact performance.

When extenuating circumstances are personal, it’s especially important to evaluate the “how” in addition to the “what.” For example, suppose your development director didn’t meet their fundraising goal because they had to take an extended medical leave. In that case, you might consider how they communicated with you and the team or how well they handed off their projects. However, if a stock market dip prevented them from meeting their fundraising goal, you should acknowledge this circumstance and praise their work to get the organization close to its goal. In contrast, if they (just barely) met their target even with an unexpected gift, it’s reasonable to point out that they should actually have been able to exceed the goal given the boost in donor revenue. This is an excellent opportunity to get curious about what happened, uncover any misunderstandings, and recalibrate around expectations.

4. Should I do anything differently for high-performing staff members?

Here’s the truth: retention is built on cumulative, small moments throughout the year—so don’t save your praise or questions about their ambitions for the end-of-year performance evaluation. You should develop, invest in, appreciate, and talk trajectory with all staff members during check-ins. When it comes time for performance evaluations: summarize and set sights on the year ahead. If someone is doing exceptionally well, use the performance evaluation to formally recognize their work and ensure they feel valued. When noting “areas of improvement,” frame your feedback in terms of how they could go from good to great (or great to greater!). For example, you could say to your communications manager, “You’ve done a great job at managing our editorial calendar and making sure we meet all our deadlines. Because of your work I see us achieving even higher engagement with our base next year. Let’s talk about ideas when we meet.” You can also use this as an opportunity to talk about what their next steps in the organization might be. What might the “next level” look like for them? Are there new responsibilities and challenges they’d like to take on? What would it take to get them to sign on for another two years?

5. When should we do evaluations?

Because performance evaluations often go hand-in-hand with promotion decisions (which typically come with raises), aligning your evaluation cycle with your fiscal year makes sense. For some organizations, this means starting the process at the end of the year (say, November or December). We recommend doing all of them at once, rather than timing it with individual work anniversaries. The concentrated timing makes it easier for the whole team to prioritize and focus on performance evaluations. Also, having a performance evaluation “season” creates greater accountability and cements feedback as part of your organizational culture.

6. How much time should we set aside to do evaluations?

We recommend providing a lot of time and space for the process. At least six weeks before evaluations are due, inform all staff that the process is starting. Have managers share key deadlines with their staff and get them on the calendar: a) deadline for self-evaluation; b) deadline for the manager evaluation; and c) meeting time for discussion. We strongly recommend minimizing or pausing other organization-wide commitments or asks (such as surveys, new initiatives, etc.). One common pitfall organizations encounter is treating evaluations as an item on the HR checklist that’s rolled out on top of the “real work” that people are already doing. Instead, treat it as a priority that helps you re-align, retain, and cultivate the team that you need.

7. My organization has never done evaluations before. What do I need to do to get started?

Make sure you have defined roles and goals for each staff member. This includes outcomes or results they should achieve within a specific time frame, and any values, skills, or mindsets they are expected to demonstrate. (If you don’t have this groundwork laid, you can still create and launch an initiative for all staff to reflect on and discuss performance, but it’ll be slightly different from a traditional performance evaluation.)

Set aside ample time for the process and assign someone to own it. This person can be your Chief of Staff, HR Director, or a similar role. When it’s time to kick off performance evaluations, start by sharing the “why.” Here are some reasons you can share for doing annual performance evaluations:

  • Impact: To make sure you have the team and results you need to drive your mission.
  • Growth: To be intentional and clear about supporting and empowering your team to grow through feedback, reflection, and direct communication.
  • Equity: To minimize bias and increase two-way accountability between managers and staff.
  • Transparency: To provide clarity for staff on their opportunities for advancement within the organization (and the requisite development needs).

Then, share the mechanics of how it’ll work, such as the timeline and MOCHA. Here’s a sample email.

8. I’m the Executive Director/CEO/Principal of my organization. Who should conduct my evaluation? How is my evaluation similar to or different from a standard staff evaluation?

If you work at a nonprofit, your evaluation should be conducted by your board of directors, steering committee, or other volunteer leadership entity. Within school systems, evaluations may involve district leadership, school boards, or other bodies overseeing state education standards. Some elements of the Executive Director evaluation process are similar to a standard staff evaluation, such as gathering input from others, like direct reports and external stakeholders. Here are some of the differences:

  • The evaluation should consider the overall organizational accomplishments, your approach to leadership in line with values, and progress toward longer-range goals (mission).
  • The evaluation is typically discussed by the entire board without any staff present (though only one or two people might be assigned the task of sharing the results and feedback with you).

Find additional resources on Performance Evaluations and related topics:

return to Developing People main page