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5 Ways for HR to Overcome 360 Review Pitfalls + Templates

Aug 17, 2022| Reading time: 17min

BY Emily Connery

VP of People and Talent

Ah, the performance review process. The time of year people love to hate. 

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the mid-1980s, Mark Edwards and Ann Ewen made performance reviews more meaningful by creating the ever-popular 360 review. In short, a 360 review collects responses from an employee’s manager, peers, and other colleagues to provide a balanced, holistic view of an employee’s performance.

Sounds great, right? But problems quickly arose when many organizations rolled out this review process without strictly following guidelines or considering potential drawbacks.

Unfortunately, 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. Ultimately, any performance review that isn’t implemented correctly does more harm than good.

Luckily, 360 reviews can be a valuable tool to grow employees, but companies need to take an evidence-based approach, draw on best practices to design their 360 review template, and conduct the review process. 

5 Ways to Ensure Successful 360 Performance Reviews

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. By keeping these tips in mind, you’ll be more prepared to confidently roll out a solid 360 review process.

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. Therefore, 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 strengthen skills and set goals around weaknesses.

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

He explains: “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.”

To promote a culture of ongoing feedback – that’s given respectfully – you should:

  • Prioritize continuous performance management. Within a continuous performance management strategy, employees receive feedback from their managers from regular 1:1s. This helps managers give timely feedback and supports direct reports in meeting their goals. 
  • Establish a company-wide commitment to learning. For example, create a training budget so your staff can access courses, conferences, books, and other development opportunities.
  • Align on broadly-used terms. This helps employees understand their feedback. For example: Goals = Broad set of objectives that drive the performance review process and conversation. Goals are 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. KPIs might be a subset of goals.
  • Carry your culture 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). You can also provide space for reviewers to leave feedback in relation to company values to determine organizational health
  • Acknowledge employee achievements. By highlighting this area on your 360 review template, 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.
  • Encourage managers to suggest growth areas for team members within the 360 review template. For example: Reflect on the past six months. What did this person not achieve against their goals? Then, write two bullet points per goal and highlight two areas of growth. 
  • Ask peers to share clear suggestions for improvement. Here’s an example from Matchmade’s 360 template: 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. Note that you should always share peer suggestions anonymously so employees can provide meaningful feedback. 

2. Clarify the Review Purpose Early and Often

No one likes being thrown into a new initiative without knowing the purpose. It’s therefore important to 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. She explains, “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.”

Thus, 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

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, so it’s crucial to teach employees how to evaluate one another and provide effective feedback. 

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, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy to achieve an objective review process.

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

Take note if your 360 review questions allow bias to creep in. Specifically, 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 your people. 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

We hate to break it to you, but unless evaluations integrate with your 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. 

Hence, another reason why people hate (ineffective) performance review cycles.

Since research of 360-degree reviews finds that a “lack of accountability” is one of the common reasons 360 review feedback fails, it’s easy to combat this in your planning.

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, ask 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.

360 Review Templates

It can be hard to provide candid feedback to others. Sometimes it’s equally difficult to write a self-evaluation.

That’s why you need 360 review templates – to ensure you’re gathering holistic, unbiased, meaningful feedback. Below are downloadable, editable templates to get you started or improve your 360 reviews. 

  • 360 Manager Feedback Template: Direct reports should complete this manager feedback template to provide candid opinions on how managers can better support individuals and their team as a whole. 
  • 360 Manager Review Template: This manager review template provides guiding questions for managers to reflect on their direct reports’ performance. What’s more, it allows leaders to consider whether employees are living company values. While none of the feedback should be surprising (since they’re ideally meeting regularly with their manager), 360 manager review templates ensure intentional conversations surrounding professional development and employee achievements are happening.
  • 360 Self-Evaluation Template: Self-evaluation questions encourage employees to do a deep dive into their own performance. This is an important step in the 360 review process, since your people can advocate for themselves and take part in setting goals for the future. 

Start Turning 360 Reviews into an Effective Development Tool

The 360 review process 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 correctly, 360 reviews 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. Don’t let bias derail your hard work. Learn how to create fair, objective performance reviews to help prevent discrimination in the workplace.

Learn more about performance reviews here

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