What is 360-degree feedback? Let’s take a closer look at this type of employee review – as well as the pros and cons of using them.

Reviews are a critical part of your company’s performance management strategy. For example, traditional performance reviews in which supervisors provide feedback to their direct reports ‒ those employees formally reporting to the manager conducting the assessment ‒ can offer invaluable feedback.

However, gathering comments from multiple sources at different levels of the organization can also be instructive. Called 360-degree feedback or 360-degree reviews, this kind of employee review has gained traction over the past several years. Done well, it can be useful. Done poorly? The effort can far outweigh the benefits.

Before you commit to a 360-degree feedback initiative, there are pros and cons as well as best practices to consider. Let’s take a closer look.

What is 360-degree feedback? 

A 360-degree review provides the employee with input from all directions by soliciting reviews from direct reports, peers working closely with the employee and managers.

The 360-degree assessment includes:

  • A self-appraisal
  • A superior’s appraisal
  • Subordinate appraisal(s)
  • Peer appraisal(s)

This type of employee review is typically confidential and anonymous ‒ that is, you won’t see attribution assigned to comments about an employee’s performance.

The main reason for using this appraisal process is to provide timely, useful feedback that can help individuals improve their performance, with a goal of helping them develop into a high performer.

The pros and cons of 360-degree feedback

If you’re thinking of adopting the 360-degree employee review process into your organization, what are the obstacles and opportunities associated with this approach?

Pros of 360-degree reviews

  • The employee receives a complete picture of their performance. Ideally, the person learns what to do to develop both personally and professionally to meet the standards set by the company.

During an annual review, the employee gets feedback from one person ‒ their direct supervisor. Ideally, the 360-degree review process pulls input from multiple people at various levels for a much broader, more diverse set of insights into their performance. 

Should the employee have a manager who is not particularly effective at giving feedback, the employee can receive constructive feedback from other sources. Done well, the 360 review can bolster employee self-awareness as they get a bigger picture of their performance.

  • The process creates a channel of open communication among employees to drive improvement across the business. Better communication means more information that can identify developmental needs at both the individual and organizational levels.

An employee’s developmental needs, as identified by a single manager, for example, may point to a need for better time management. However, that same feedback echoed from multiple peers about a single manager could reveal a workload management issue for that supervisor to address with their direct reports.

  • The 360-degree feedback approach benefits leaders, managers and teams, not just staff. Giving employees a safe place to provide feedback about their managers keeps leaders accountable for their management decisions. The 360-degree review process can uncover previously undetected issues, such as how a manager assigns workloads across a team.

Supervisors also benefit from feedback from other departments into how their direct reports are performing for a broader view of their employees’ performance. These insights can help leaders better manage and develop their teams.

Cons of 360-degree reviews

  • Choosing the right people to participate in a 360-degree review is critical to make this type of assessment work well. It is essential to select a variety of reviewers to ensure high-quality, constructive feedback. A 360-degree assessment describes how a person impacts a business across various levels. If other reviewers provide glowing feedback, one “bad apple” review could reveal a brewing personal conflict rather than a performance issue. Choosing the right people to give input can support HR’s efforts to determine the whole picture behind an employee’s performance.
  • The 360-review process is more involved than other types of review processes. While 360 reviews can be effective, they require a lot of effort. Gathering feedback from multiple sources can translate into more time, more documentation, more people sharing feedback and many more opportunities for workers to react poorly to the entire process.
  • Not only are 360 reviews harder to coordinate, but they can be complex and unwieldy to manage. Some HR departments use software designed to track and organize 360 reviews.
  • Follow-up is critical to justify the amount of effort that goes into the 360-degree review process. Managers and employees alike may balk at conducting 360 reviews given the amount of work that goes into the process if there is no follow-up on uncovered issues.
  • Follow-up should take place after completing the review, with more check-ins as warranted. Not only does following up help the employee improve considerably, but your company also gains from action taken as well.

7 best practices for adopting the 360-degree review process

1. Start the review process at the beginning of the year.  Set up the system and train all employees on the process to establish expectations.

2. Identify desired outcomes and agree upon metrics to determine if the employee has achieved the outcome. Make the assessments quantitative whenever feasible, rather than qualitative (and possibly subjective) to better manage employee performance expectations.

3. Remember: People need to learn how to accept and give constructive feedback. Training gives employees and managers alike the tools to do this effectively.

4. Ensure feedback is dispersed across the team – and in both directions. There should be a separate process for employees to give feedback on managers as part of the manager’s 360-degree review. 

5. Clarify to participants the role of anonymity in the process, especially how and when it may be breached. For example, HR can and should breach the confidentiality of feedback given when it’s necessary to address serious issues like harassment or bullying allegations. (It may be useful to revisit proper procedures for addressing these serious issues with HR outside of the review process.)

6. Review employee progress on an ongoing basis. This can be undertaken during monthly or quarterly check-ins, to allow for more real-time feedback.

7. Don’t forget to look at your employees as a team rather than as a collection of individuals. As the saying goes, a team is only as strong as the weakest link. Because 360-degree reviews solicit feedback from a wider array of people, they can be useful in helping assess who might need more coaching not only for their own benefit but also for that of their peers. Similarly, if strong performers are identified, you may be able to cross-train or reskill them not only for their individual benefit but also for that of their teammates.

Success starts at the top

Ultimately, leadership leads the charge for any organization implementing 360-degree reviews. As a leader – and whatever approach to performance evaluations you decide to use – your main goal should be to make your workplace culture safe for employees to give and receive constructive feedback in ways that build up their strengths.

To learn more about what makes a successful relationship between managers and employees, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to company culture.