How to Write an Employee Review During Unusual Times

January 14, 2021

Sometimes it's hard to know how to write an employee review, even in a normal year. So, here are some things to remember in an unusual year.

How to Write and Employee Review Cover Image 1

Is it really that time of year again?  No, I’m not talking about W-2 season, although hopefully you’re in the process of verifying employee addresses.  Rather, I’m referring to the time of year many of us conduct—or are on the receiving end—of employee reviews.  Most years it feels like we’ve arrived at the right place at the right time. Last year, however, felt like a discombobulated mess of starts and stops.  Therefore, many bosses may be scratching their heads and trying to best figure out how to write an employee review this year.

Even though last year was far from ordinary, it’s good to look back at the basic employee review template to find a good starting point.  So, here is a general overview of how to write an employee review, followed by some tips for tweaking it according to the unusual circumstances.

Why We Review Employees

Before we dive into how to write an employee review, let’s discuss why we review employees at all. 

Now, there are several reasons why it is important to conduct employee reviews.  Here are the items you can address in the employee review:

  • Expectations or rules
  • Goals or objectives for individuals and company
  • Potential role changes
  • Areas of improvement
  • Opportunity for advancement
  • Employee questions, concerns, or feedback

As you can see, there is a handful of topics that you may discuss.  Furthermore, reviews are often performed on an annual basis.  Therefore, a lot of time could have passed between when you hire an employee and when you perform that employee’s first review. 

So, think of the review as a way to check in with the employee to make sure he still understands the requirements of the role.  If there is anything that has changed about the role, the employee review would be a good time to go over that information.  Then, you can use the review to see if the employee is hitting the targets originally discussed.  Clear objectives are important because they give employees something to shoot for.  In other words, employees will know they aren’t working aimlessly each day.  Furthermore, the employee review is a good opportunity to consider if an employee may be eligible for promotion or advancement.

Employee Review Template

Image of a generic employee review template.
Generic Employee Review Template

Perhaps you already have one, but if you don’t, creating an employee review template could prove very useful for you.  Not only would it standardize the process for all employee reviews, but it will also ensure that you don’t forget to go over any topics.

Now, as you create your employee review template, the first thing you will want to do is identify quantitative and qualitative achievements or performance indicators. 

Quantitative achievements will be items such as number of calls performed over the year, total sales dollars, or pieces assembled.  Your quantitative achievements will be industry and job-specific. 

Qualitative performance indicators, on the other hand, will tell you things such as an employee’s client rating, initiative, and leadership ability.

So, here are some items you could include on your employee review template:


  • Rating from client surveys
  • Sales dollars achieved
  • Units assembled
  • Days late
  • Days missed
  • Number of professional development seminars attended


  • Works to full potential
  • Quality of work is satisfactory
  • Consistent work output
  • Effective communicator
  • Works independently
  • Collaborates well with others
  • Takes initiative
  • Honest
  • Dependable
Related:  Oh No You Didn’t: The ABCs of Illegal Interview Questions

Finally, you’ll want to make sure to include specific examples for any of the categories above. A monkey can check a box, but a good employer will provide evidence.

Remember, these are only suggestions.  If these aren’t applicable to the industry or the employee’s role, they aren’t required on your employee review template.

How to Write an Employee Review

Ok, now that you finally have that employee review template ready to go, let’s look at how to write the employee review.  Below you’ll find some things that would be wise to remember as you assess each employee.

Photo of two people with coffee mugs, looking at notes, as though for an employee review.

Keep a cumulative record.

The most important thing to remember is not to write the review in one sitting.  In other words, do your best not to procrastinate.  A good manager will observe and collect evidence over the course of the review period.  Waiting until the last minute can negatively impact an employee review in several ways.  First, you might not remember all the accomplishments or struggles if you don’t take notes as you go. Second, waiting until right before a review might cause you stress, and you could project unfairly onto the employee.  Third, your employee will probably be able to tell that the review you wrote was a rush job.  So, make every effort to be thinking of your employees in real time, instead of in hindsight. 

Lead with a positive, end with a positive.

From a psychological perspective, you will have a better discussion with your employee if you start on a positive note, and end on a positive note.  This means highlighting the good things about your employee as you open and close the conversation.  Also, when you transition into the areas that need improvement, avoid using the word “but.” For example, if your employee excels in sales, but rubs coworkers the wrong way, try phrasing it like this.  “John, you are undoubtedly a gifted sales representative.  Keep doing what you are doing, because it is working.  On that note, I would love to see you build rapport with your teammates the way you do with your clients.  How about we brainstorm ways you could improve relationships with coworkers?”

Be honest.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes even the best managers might be tempted to do the wrong thing, especially if it’s a means to a better end.  For example, let’s say you have an employee who is just not the greatest.  Perhaps you have been keeping a file on the employee, and building a case for termination.  Don’t succumb to writing a bad review for things the employee isn’t doing badly.  In other words, if the employee interacts well with clients but not coworkers, don’t say she gets along badly with everyone.  Be specific about the details.

Also, remember to base the review on your own experience, not the hearsay of employees.  Except when assessing collaboration with others or client ratings, what others say about the employee should be irrelevant without evidence.

Choose words wisely.

This should always have been a must, but, alas, it was a problem for a long time for some employers.  A big don’t here:  DON’T discriminate.  A good way to avoid discrimination is to choose your words wisely.  Avoid assessing employees based on things that are not relevant to their role.  Furthermore, don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t be willing to say in person.

Related:  IRS Increases Mileage Rates

Provide specific, tangible evidence.

Image of a yellow avatar holding a magnifying glass.

As previously mentioned, when discussing honesty, be specific about the evidence you provide to your employee during the review.  Being vague, or discussing abstract issues, will not be as effective as being specific and providing tangible evidence.  If an employer doesn’t have good examples of situations that could have been handled better, then the employee cannot learn from the situation and work to improve.

Be fair.

A great way to level the playing field and ensure fairness is to use the employee review template for all employees.  In other words, don’t just scrap the template for one person and not another simply because employees have different roles.  If you must, create a separate review template based on roles.  Or, if a line item isn’t applicable, simply write “N/A.” 

Provide a space for employees to give feedback.

When you must discuss negatives, make it a conversation about what went wrong, without being accusatory.  Also, allow employee to help brainstorm ways to improve.  Here, you can practice active listening, and take notes on the employee review template.  This will give you something to refer back to during the next employee review.

An Unusual Year

Now, considering the unusual year we just experienced together, here are some things you need to keep in mind as you think about how to write an employee review.  First, try to keep as much of the review process intact as you can.  A lot has changed recently, so let’s salvage as much as possible to avoid overwhelming employees.  Second, when you need to tweak the review, explain the reasons for making the adjustment.  You’ll want employees to know that any changes are a result of the need to pivot during the COVID season.  Third, extend grace to employees as you write this review.  This year has been hard, and it has certainly affected employee morale.  Employees need to know they are valued, and that you are looking optimistically into the future.

Review and Move On

In summary, we have discussed a general overview of how to write an employee review, and how to tweak it according to unusual circumstances.  Remember to use a review template to keep the review fair for all employees.  Also, the review template should have a mix of quantitative and qualitative items.  When you are writing the review, start and end with positive comments, be specific when providing evidence, and choose your words carefully.  If you take an encouraging stance with the employee review, you will build morale and create loyal and dedicated workers. Finally, remember to move on after the employee review. It is a new year, after all.

Photo of a man wearing a t-shirt and hat and looking up at the sky.

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