What Employers Need to Know About Employee Peer Reviews

January 17, 2023
What Employers Need to Know About Employee Peer Reviews
Companies that strive for growth and development know feedback is critical for employees. Understanding what is being done well, what needs work, and what should stop (immediately) fosters professional and personal advancement. In many companies, employee performance management and feedback comes in the form of an annual top-down performance review. Managers evaluate their staff once a year (sometimes grudgingly), then business returns to the status quo. The old annual performance review has been replaced with more frequent check-ins that immediately recognize achievements, correct problems, and set employees on a forward-moving path. For many companies, the next evolution in the review process is to include reviews from peers as well as management.

Why are peer reviews valuable for organizations?

Building trust and collaboration among and across teams results in a stronger workforce. Working together, either routinely or occasionally, gives an opportunity to assess each other’s strengths and uncover areas that could benefit from improvement. Side-by-side workers may have keen insight into how their colleagues excel and where they could grow and develop. When peer feedback is constructive and relevant, it offers an opportunity to collaborate more effectively. The efficiency of relationships within and outside of teams creates or inhibits success. Feedback can build trust and more positive interactions. They also outline areas where coworkers can benefit from training, supporting continuous development. The boots-on-the-ground approach can reveal small or large areas that can benefit from growth and training. Peer reviews are a net positive: for the company as well as the individual worker.

Structuring peer reviews in your company

When creating peer review systems for your organization, set some ground rules and boundaries. Harvard Business Review offers some ideas the largest companies in the world use. Google, for example, allows for anonymous peer reviews: only the employee’s manager has access to see who provided what feedback. At Netflix, they ask employees for ‘radical candor.’ Their system is limited to identifying things coworkers should ‘stop, start or continue.’ They began the process with anonymous reviews, then moved to a direct feedback process. Organizations new to the peer review process may want to start with smaller, less potentially confrontational, reviews in the beginning. They may, over time, build trust and expand to a more candid approach.

Getting employees on board with the evaluation process

Once you’ve decided to include peer reviews in your evaluation process, you’ll need employees to understand your reasoning. Communicate that the goal is to get positive, actionable feedback from the people your staff works most closely with.
Peer reviews are not a ‘complaint department’ memo: they’re an opportunity to discuss what works, what doesn’t, and what can improve.
Peer reviews are not a ‘complaint department’ memo: they’re an opportunity to discuss what works, what doesn’t, and what can improve. Let staff know they’ll all have an opportunity to participate: if you’ve decided on peer-to-peer reviews, they need to be for everyone to assure fairness and equity. Let workers know there will be a structure for the process initially and you will be looking, after a short time, at whether or not they were successful. The goal is reviews that provide professional, growth-oriented feedback from colleagues. If that’s the outcome of the process, it can move forward and evolve.

Set parameters and boundaries for peer reviews

There will need to be limits and boundaries. Outline what is productive feedback, and what is not acceptable. This isn’t an opportunity for vengeance, it’s an opportunity to build trust and relationships. Staff members will be looking for guidance on what to include and what is out-of-bounds, be ready to provide examples of both. You can suggest comments like ‘keeps me current on project status,’ or ‘could communicate more frequently.’ Short bursts of information may be all that are needed to provide valuable insight. In the beginning, keep it simple. Create a template for workers to use. You can start with generic questions or move to more specifics.

Define the peer review process for staff members

While the Netflix example may be too radical as a starting-off point, the basics make sense. You may ask employees to list what their colleague should stop, start, or continue. You may ask for specifics: why start or stop; how does either affect the work or the team? Training may be something a colleague would like to see their peer start or continue, make sure to include that as an option in the template. You may provide guidance separately or specifically for each question. Remind employees that the process is meant to be positive and growth-oriented. You’re looking for feedback that’s professional, actionable, and helpful. This is not a time for the airing of grievances: it’s an opportunity to work more effectively together.

Set limits on which and how many workers participate

Depending on the nature of the work and the structure of the department, there may be only a few peers to include or too many to count. Set a reasonable amount of people to offer a peer-review form, possibly 3 to 5. The manager should determine who to issue some of the peer review forms to, starting with the employee’s closest daily associates. You may ask an employee to suggest peers they’d like to hear from: they’ll probably initially offer names of colleagues they believe will give them accolades. Suggest they include people who they’re not confident will give them a rave review: the insight they gain could be invaluable. Your template or questions could include:
  • Feedback that outlines positive aspects of the working relationship
  • Touch briefly on any negative issues — there may be room for discussion
  • Suggestions that will help the employee grow their skills or competencies
Keep the questions short and remind employees to keep their answers relatively short, as well. It’s not an essay: ask reviewers to provide relevant information that outlines a coworker’s strengths or reveals areas that could be developed.

Review the peer reviews after employees submit them

Initially ask workers to submit their reviews to the employee’s manager for a first look. This can be very helpful when rolling out a new program. Look for peer feedback that has a growth-oriented outlook and can provide insight into relevant, actionable steps the employee can make in areas that need correction. The manager should also look for feedback that’s vindictive, unprofessional, or inappropriate and return those to the peer for corrections. Providing managers with a first look gives them insight into how the employee is viewed and works with their peers. This could be helpful for forming their own evaluation of the employee, and even the employees who write a review for their peers. If an otherwise unremarkable worker gets consistently positive peer reviews, there may be a quiet champion on the team. If another consistently bashes their peers and has to revise their evaluations, you may wonder if they are the problem in the group.

Meet with employees to discuss the peer reviews

After managers have reviewed peer input, they should put together their own evaluation of the employee. If they’ve already competed theirs, it may warrant revision after reading the peer comments. Meet with the employee to discuss the evaluation first from the manager’s perspective. Next, touch on any relevant peer comments. If you’re structured for anonymous peer reviews, make sure you don’t name names. If employees believed their comments were confidential, you’ll undermine their confidence in you by revealing their names. As you finalize the review meeting, discuss how the staff member is perceived by their peers. Highlight areas of particular strength the employee can capitalize on. Discuss potential growth and come up with an action plan to develop. There may be suggestions for specific internal or external training. You may find employee comments generally touch on soft skills, like confidence or communication. These may be strengths the employee should build on, or areas where they can grow and improve. Peer reviews can be a valuable part of a company’s overall employee evaluation strategy. They can provide insight into how well staff members work together. They can be especially helpful for managers who have a lot of direct reports. Structured correctly, and with a positive, growth-centric mindset, peer reviews could help your teams work more collaboratively and effectively in the future.

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