Navigating difficult staff reviews

10 min read

Performance reviews are an essential but often overlooked part of any successful veterinary practice. If you’re like many practice managers, you keep shuffling reviews from one to-do list to the next, hoping they’ll eventually go away, but they never do! Before you know it, staff are receiving their reviews several months late, or worse, they’re not receiving them at all. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear managers say that their staff haven’t received formal feedback in more than a year.

So, what’s with the aversion to staff reviews? One of the most common explanations I hear is lack of time. In my opinion, however, tied in first place or a close second at the very least is the fact that reviews are often difficult and not very fun to do. This was my mindset early on in my career. However, when I became the manager of 180+ employees, including six middle managers, I quickly learned how to navigate staff reviews.

The more challenging the employee,
the more challenging the staff review

While my management team performed most of the support staff reviews, about 20 to 30 times a year I was brought into the picture to help navigate difficult conversations with somewhat challenging employees – the ones who deflect, have an excuse for everything, are never at fault, insist they’re always the victim, and more – you get the picture.

For the most part, getting comfortable with these types of reviews is a case of practice makes somewhat-perfect. That said, below are some helpful tricks-of-the-trade that I’ve acquired over the years. I suggest you add to these to your own toolbox.

Conduct 360 degree reviews

I absolutely love this type of review structure. The concept here is that you not only gather feedback from the staff member’s co-workers and direct manager; you also have the staff member review himself or herself. When conducting this type of review, you should ask all participants the same questions to find out if the staff member identifies the same strengths and opportunities identified by his or her peers. This is how I measure an employee’s emotional intelligence. Incidentally, it’s much less challenging to discuss those developmental opportunities a staff member raises about themselves, versus those that a co-worker or director manager raises about them.

NOTE: One question I do suggest asking employees, in addition to those questions you ask their peers, is: “What are two or three things that we can do to support your success?” This gives them an opportunity to “critique” the practice, thereby evening out the playing field a little so that they don’t feel under attack.

Avoid trigger words

Everyone has them. If you’re reviewing somebody you’ve had heated discussions with in the past, chances are you know what their trigger words are. Avoid these words at all costs! Not sure what they are? Watch their body language. If you say something and see their non-verbal cues change, stop the conversation and address their reaction. Find out what triggered them and see if there’s a more accurate word or phrase you can use.

Meet on neutral ground

If the staff member you’re reviewing has negative associations with your office based on past experiences, he or she will likely anticipate a negative conversation if you conduct the review in that location. To avoid this, make a point of meeting elsewhere.

Remember, less is more

Conducting a staff review can be much like restraining a cat; the less you try to muscle, the better it will likely be for all involved! Ask open-ended questions, and let the staff member talk. The more you say about the individual, the more he or she will have to pick apart. In conversation and in documentation, keep it top-line to avoid being dragged into the weeds, i.e. don’t get into specifics, especially if they pertain to situations in which you weren’t personally involved. The more details you get into, the easier it will be for the employee to minimize and/or contradict your feedback.

Own your part

Has the employee being reviewed been given clear expectations around his or her role, as well as the tools necessary to fulfil it effectively? Keep in mind that a lot of staff tend to be competitive and like goals. Keep goals SMART with the help of KPIs or other data-driven metrics. VetSuccess offers a variety of data solutions to help you establish and monitor these goals.

If you haven’t provided firm goals or expectations to measure their performance against, own it. Acknowledge that the practice has not done its part to set that individual up for success, and position the staff review as a first step towards ensuring that you’re on the same page moving forward.

Review the review

Last but not least, at the end of every review you’ll want to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Have you outlined (verbally and on paper) what is expected of the employee going forward? Does he or she clearly understand the potential consequences if improvement does not occur? Has the employee had the opportunity to refute any feedback deemed inaccurate?

Remember, staff reviews aren’t intended to make employees happy; they’re intended to help employees become successful. Feedback is essential to their success, and their success is essential to the future of your practice, so grab your toolkit, take a deep breath and stop procrastinating. You’ve got this!


Hess, Brandon

Hess, Brandon

Brandon Hess CVPM, CCFP is an associate consultant with VetSupport and a founding member of the Southwestern Ohio Veterinary Management Association. He can be reached at [email protected]

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