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Giving a Performance Review? Avoid These Phrases

Jennifer Post

Some situations in life are uncomfortable for both parties involved. Performance reviews can be one of those situations. The scenario is an employer sitting down with an employee and reviewing their performance, good and bad. Sometimes there might be news to deliver that isn't so pleasant for the employee to hear. In that case, there are ways to get that review across while avoiding these common phrases.

Industry experts outlined the common mistakes employers make when giving a performance review and how they can be avoided.

1. Avoid making it a monologue.

The best way to conduct a performance review is to make it conversational, as opposed to a lecture. Sherry Ailsworth, partner of recruiting at Chameleon Collective, suggested this opener:

"I've been looking forward to this discussion, Diane. We should start with a review of where your performance has been exemplary – where I think you shine. Next, I want to discuss suggestions for improving how we work together, and finally, we will review your personal performance together. How does that sound? Have I missed anything?"

Ailsworth noted that by asking for the employee's feedback on your agenda, you offer them co-ownership of the conversation. "You also signal there will be a balance of some bright spots and some room for improvement, but you expect that you will both learn something from the dialogue." [Read related story: What is Performance Management]

2. Avoid starting with a negative, but don't be falsely positive.

"Starting with 'suggestions for improving how we work together' sounds so much more constructive than saying, 'Let's talk about the problems I have with you,'" said Ailsworth.

Consider these examples:

"I appreciate how forward-thinking you are for our customers, like the time when you reached out to Mr. Abbott at ABC Construction to congratulate him on the new building contract he closed. So thoughtful."

"Your attention to detail is incredibly helpful; your succinct footnotes on the February sales report saved an hour of explanation to the CFO. I appreciated your efforts."

Providing that extra detail accomplishes a couple things. One, it grounds your feedback in a real situation and validates the employee's behavior as valuable to you, as well as the company. Secondly, it signals to the employee that you pay attention to their work, Ailsworth said.

"Managers should be direct, positive without flattery, and critical without sounding harsh," said Wendy De Campos, employee experience and human resources lead at digital transformation agency Levatas. "When employees hear only the positives, they may be misguided to think they are performing better than expectations, which may lead to expected merit increases or promotions."

De Campos added that when there is a mismatch in perception, it can also lead to disappointment and discouragement.

3. Avoid sharing criticism with assumptions or exaggerations.

With extreme or emotional language, there's a chance the employee will immediately become defensive, according to Erick Mott, head of communications at Reflektive. This will throw off their answers or lengthen the review process.

"Every criticism you share should be backed up with data, not drama," Ailsworth said. "For example, when discussing worktime punctuality, which statement sounds more factual – 'you've come in late at least a thousand times this quarter' or 'according to the entry-card log I pulled yesterday, you arrived after the company-mandated start time at least twice each week for the past 12 weeks'?" 

Ailsworth added that illuminating your criticism with data lessens the likelihood you'll lose control of the conversation to an argument or emotional display.

You should also avoid extreme words like "always" and "never."

"For example, if one of my employees is not satisfying their daily call requirements, it would be inappropriate to say, 'You never make your daily calls.' I could instead say, 'You consistently fail to meet your daily call requirements,'" said Mavis Norwich, sales manager at employee engagement company TINYpulse.

4. Avoid letting the conversation get off topic.

It's easy for conversations to go a different way from what you had planned, but in a performance review, it is crucial that the conversation stay in line with what needs to be accomplished.

"Instead of asking, 'Why are you so upset?', invite them to open up by asking, 'We seem to have hit a disconnect. It might be because I misunderstood you; will you talk to me about that?'" Ailsworth suggested. "The first question forces the employee to explain their emotional upset, which creates anxiety. The second question forces you to own the problem, and provides the employee a good reason to open up. If you're listening, you will both learn something important in the answer."

5. Avoid closed and compound questions.

It is important to remember that performance reviews are opportunities to guide your direct reports. De Campos suggested some open-ended questions to yield the best responses from your employee:

  • How do you feel about what was discussed, and in what ways can it be turned into an action plan for next month/quarter/year?
  • What are your thoughts regarding your career path?
  • What are your three favorite functions about your job?
  • What are you passionate about?

"A yes-or-no question won't get you – or the employee – many useful insights for reviewing their job performance," said Mott. "Since a compound questions is actually more than one question, the answer will likely be incomplete or convoluted."

His advice is to ask clear and simple questions that will create authentic, detailed responses. "These are the questions that generate the most valuable information. If an evaluation seems to be meandering or going off track, ask the employee about his or her goals for the future. The answers you get can prompt further questions about what steps need to be taken to ensure he or she can meet those goals."

Image Credit: I Believe I Can Fly/Shutterstock
Jennifer Post
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Jennifer Post is a professional writer with published works focusing on small business topics including marketing, financing, and how-to guides. She has also published articles on business formation, business software, public relations and human resources. Her work has also appeared in Fundera and The Motley Fool.