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5 Ways for HR to Overcome 360 Review Pitfalls + Template

Dec 14, 2021| Reading time: 15min

BY Emily Connery

VP of People and Talent

Everyone’s bought into the idea of the 360 review template.

Back in the 1990s, 360 reviews were seen as a fad, but they’ve since become a popular development tool for organizations. A 360-review template collects responses from an employee’s manager, peers, and other colleagues to provide a balanced, holistic view of an employee’s performance.

However, many organizations roll out the review process without considering potential drawbacks.

Decades of research into 360-degree reviews reveal that when done incorrectly, multi-rater reviews lead to no performance improvement. And, in some cases, the 360-feedback approach to reviews can even make performance worse. Unfortunately, any performance review that isn’t implemented correctly does more harm than good.

360 reviews can be a valuable tool to grow employees, but only if companies take an evidence-based approach, drawing on best practices to design the template and conduct the review process. If you’re thinking about implementing (or already have implemented) 360 reviews, here are five steps you can take to make sure your organization realizes these benefits.

1. Build a culture of ongoing feedback and learning

Several studies confirm 360 reviews work best in organizations that promote open communication and ongoing learning. Thus, if you want your 360 reviews to be effective, you must foster a learning culture. When your company has a learning culture, employees see 360-degree feedback as an opportunity to get better at their jobs.

Creating this type of culture also helps employees process 360 feedback, according to Thomas Koulopoulos, the founder of the Delphi Group consultancy.

“If you have not been through a 360 it is nothing like a traditional performance review. Much of what you get is raw and unfiltered feedback, which you will be tempted to become instantly and intensely defensive about. That’s why you will have to invest heavily in developing an understanding of how it works, committing to it, and developing a culture that supports it,” Koulopoulos explains.

To promote a culture of ongoing feedback, prioritize continuous performance management by ensuring employees receive feedback from their managers through regular 1:1s. Similarly, you need a company-wide commitment to learning. For example, create a training budget. That budget should give all staff access to courses, conferences, books, and other development opportunities.

You’ll need to carry this culture through into the review process. One way to do so is to incorporate constructive feedback into the performance review template. That said, the 360 feedback form shouldn’t be where a manager raises all of their concerns about a person’s performance (especially because employees and managers should already be having regular performance discussions if you’ve implemented continuous performance improvement).

With that in mind, here are a few ways to provide space for constructive feedback in the 360 review template:

  • Get managers to suggest growth areas for team members. For example:Reflect on the past six months. What did this person not achieve against their goals? Write two bullet points per goal. Highlight two areas for growth and improvement to focus on. Note: Goals = Broad set of objectives that drive the performance review process and conversation. Inclusive of KPIs but not limited to KPIs. KPIs = Specific measures toward an intended result to provide focus on what is critical to the company mission. Might be a subset of goals.
  • Ask peers to share clear suggestions for improvement. Here’s an example from this 360 template from Matchmade, an influencer marketing platform:“Tell this person how they can be a better colleague to work with by giving them specific action points they should execute on within the next 6 months.”

Remember to include survey questions that cover the employee’s achievements too. Here, raters can highlight the employee’s contributions to the company. This is important because when you recognize an employee’s contribution, you acknowledge their hard work and provide clarity about good performance.

2. Clarify the review purpose early and often

Outline the purpose of the review well before the formal process kicks off so employees understand the reason for the evaluation.

Without any context, the 360 review process can cause confusion and workplace stress, says Nadine Greiner, human resources executive. “When your team members don’t feel that they have control over their situations, it causes what’s called situational stress. It’s the same feeling we feel when confronted by danger, like a house fire, and it triggers a fight-or-flight response.”

Be transparent about the goal of the feedback survey at the start of the process. For example, John Behr, an executive coach, says HR and the employee’s line manager should explain whether the review is for general development or to address specific performance concerns.

Paired with a culture of learning, this transparency should help employees approach the review as a development tool rather than a dreaded event.

3. Provide feedback training

Train raters on how to evaluate employees and provide effective feedback. According to Gallup, only 26% of employees believe the feedback they receive helps them to do better at their jobs. Unfortunately, they also found employees who don’t react well to negative feedback might not feel motivated to improve their performance following the review. Adequate rater training can overcome this challenge.

Offering frame-of-reference training can help managers and peers level up their review skills. As part of this training, provide raters with a “common reference standard” they can use during the evaluation process. Make sure each rater understands how to use this uniform standard to identify good or poor performance. You might select a numeric rating scale, where numbers are linked to an adjective, like 5=excellent. Or you can opt for a narrative rating scale, with elements such as “meets basic requirements.” Whatever scale you choose, give raters examples of the behaviors and skills that correspond with each level.

When it comes to delivering the review, you should consider adding the scoring criteria to the template. In the example below, managers receive guidance for completing the evaluation form:

  • Provide examples of tasks, projects, and milestones in the evaluation and be ready to speak to these in the conversation.
  • Think of the SBI Feedback Model when delivering the evaluation. SBI = Situation-Behavior-Impact. Be specific about a situation, point to the observable behavior, and clarify the impact of said behavior. The “impact” piece is critical because it highlights the importance of why they need to start/stop/continue a behavior.

Clear guidelines like these for scoring employees lead to concrete performance feedback. Giving raters this kind of direction also helps to reduce bias. Raters don’t need to rely on their interpretation of good performance because they have a rubric for evaluations. As a result, you’ll have more accurate, objective performance data to inform training discussions and development plans.

4. Implement an objective, consistent review process

Develop a process to ensure reviews are fair, accurate assessments of employee performance. Even though 360-degree feedback helps counter bias, your organization must still invest in a broader diversity and inclusion strategy to achieve an objective review process.

Gender economist Katica Roy says 360 reviews don’t automatically block bias just because you get multiple perspectives of someone’s performance. “Everyone is prone to bias. Having more people evaluate your performance doesn’t make their opinions less biased.”

Even the design of 360 review questions may allow bias to creep in—a Stanford Graduate School of Business study reveals managers allowed “gender policing” to influence their ratings. Women, for example, received more positive ratings if they had “likable” personalities.

To design a bias-free review process, you’ll first need to raise company-wide awareness of DEI. That’s precisely what Buffer did to address potential bias in its performance review process. Courtney Seiter, Buffer’s former director of people, says Buffer started with DEI training to reduce discrimination in the performance review process. Buffer also uses 360 reviews, and Seiter says the company developed an anti-bias checklist for their employee evaluation.

To create your own anti-bias checklist, ask whether the employee performance review:

  • Provides specific performance criteria related to job requirements
  • Separates personality from skill
  • Requires specific evidence during the evaluation

The next step in achieving a fair appraisal process is implementing a standard review system for all employees. This means using the same feedback template and rating scale for all employees. Using performance review software can support this process since the technology acts as a single source for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing the review feedback and performance data. These platforms also help to highlight potential bias in performance feedback. For example, a people analytics tool that also offers performance review capabilities will allow you to view performance scores by race and gender to identify any trends.

5. Connect 360 feedback to action plans

Unless the evaluation integrates with the company’s broader HR processes, your 360 feedback won’t improve performance. Instead, it will become an information-gathering exercise with no bearing on an employee’s career or job growth. Research into 360-degree reviews finds that a “lack of accountability” is one of the common reasons 360 review feedback fails.

One way to make sure 360 feedback sticks is to have all employees choose accountability partners, or people who will check in on their progress toward key goals. In the context of 360-degree reviews, the ideal number of partners is generally three: The employee’s manager, their HR partner, and a colleague with whom they work closely or who is a key stakeholder of their work.

Another best practice for connecting 360 feedback to action plans is to integrate the review process with pay increases or promotions.

Finally, you can also include training suggestions in a 360-degree feedback report. This report is a summary of the ratings, responses, and recommendations that come from the review. Employees and managers can use this document to update goals and training plans on an ongoing basis.

When you highlight training opportunities in this report, you make a direct connection between performance management and professional development. As you do so, it’s important to remember that each employee is unique, and, as such, they may define career success in different ways. Here, it’s helpful to encourage employees to play a role in guiding their growth. During the review process, allow people to refine their career goals and interests. For instance, this 360 review template asks the following question to help employees reflect on their career goals:

“As you think about your career journey, what does success look like for you in three to five years?”

Be sure to couple employees’ answers to these questions with the company’s broader objectives. With these insights, you’ll be able to create a training plan that serves the goals of your employees — and your organization.

Start turning 360 reviews into an effective development tool

The 360 review template remains a popular practice because it works. Yet, every performance evaluation process has limitations. Fortunately, your people team can help your company get the 360 review process right.

When done right, 360 reviews can help your employees build on strengths and develop new skills. They’ll feel motivated and inspired to work on their craft and make a meaningful contribution to the company.

In turn, your organization benefits from a highly capable workforce that’s ready to meet the needs of the business, ultimately making 360 reviews a win-win for employees and the company.

Improving 360 reviews helps you set the foundation for effective, fair evaluations. But bias can derail your hard work. Learn how to combat bias with performance reviews in this blog post.

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