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Giving a Performance Review? What Not to Say

Giving a Performance Review? What Not to Say
The best employee reviews offer feedback, but not negativity. / Credit: Feedback image via Shutterstock

Bosses who point out all of their employees' flaws will more likely produce a disgruntled staff, rather than a team set on improving.

A recent study led by Kansas State University assistant professor of Management Satoris Culbertson, discovered that even employees who are focused on learning don't respond well to negative performance reviews.

Business News Daily recently reported on Culbertson's findings, which found managers must be careful when giving feedback to employees because it can affect motivation, commitment and performance. Here, we follow up with Culbertson in an email interview to learn more about performance reviews and how they should be structured so employees get the most out of them.

[READ: Why Negative Performance Reviews Don't Work…Ever]

Since employees don't respond well to criticism in their reviews, how can bosses point out workers' flaws without angering them?

I wouldn't necessarily say that all employees respond poorly to criticism in their reviews. Rather, I would say that people don't like receiving negative feedback. The distinction I'm trying to make is that negative feedback is different from constructive feedback in that the latter also points on steps that can be taken to improve. In addition, feedback is better received when it comes from a credible, trustworthy source. These things are influenced by things such as having knowledge about the job and the opportunity to observe performance, as well as clearly having the employee's best interests at heart. When the source is credible, employees are more accepting of the feedback and likely to use it for improvement purposes.

Finally, we know that allowing employees a chance to participate in the appraisal process makes a difference in terms of reactions to the appraisal. Having a voice in terms of how they are assessed and what their final ratings are, as well as a chance to dispute ratings via an appeals process help to make the employee's reactions to the performance management system in general — and the performance review specifically — more positive.

How can performance reviews be more tied into the strategy of the organization as you suggest in the research?

This is best accomplished during the system design phase. In general, when trying to determine what to assess employees on, it is important to look at not only the job in question, but also the organization as a whole. You should determine what the vision and mission is for the organization and department, and make sure that you're aligning the performance requirements with those. The example I used most frequently for my students is a comparison of a high-end hotel/spa with a lower-end, value-oriented hotel/motel. The [business] strategies for these two establishments are quite different, who they target as customers, what differentiates them from competitors, etc. So why would we evaluate employees in the same way for each? For the higher-end establishment, we might value better customer service skills, whereas at the lower-end one we may value more efficiency and speediness (among other differences). Thus, we need to tie the strategy of the organization to the performance management system as a whole to really make an impact on both organizations and their employees.

Why is the sandwich approach — positive feedback, followed by negative feedback, followed by positive feedback — so ineffective?

It's not to say that it is automatically bad ... it's more the point that it is a well-known approach to giving feedback that may come across as insincere. If you're struggling to find positive things to say, two ridiculous positives with one very serious negative may appear condescending and insincere. In addition, it may make a mockery of the overall message that needs to be sent. "You always come to work on time. Your work is atrocious. Your uniform is well maintained." The main thing, I would say, is to make sure you're ending on a constructive note, as opposed to trying to be purely positive. And just make sure you're focused on what is important and job relevant.

Are there keywords managers should or shouldn't use when writing a performance review?

I think this is likely common sense more than anything. Keep comments professional and job relevant and you should be fine. That said, there is a belief that it is better to frame negative things in a more positive way: "weaknesses" become "developmental opportunities," for example. I do like the fact that it highlights that development (change for the better) is possible, but I'm not sure it's essential. That is, when you say "strengths and developmental opportunities," people know that you're talking about weaknesses. It may just not be as much of a blow to their self-esteem.

Do managers have the same reaction to negative feedback from their employees when they write self-evaluations?

Feedback — upwards, downwards and lateral — basically operates the same. Negative feedback is hard to take, regardless of where it comes [from].

How often would you suggest giving employees performance reviews?

I would recommend having more ongoing, informal discussions. The actual performance reviews and the frequency will depend on the organization, department and job. Too-frequent of reviews may not allow enough time for change to occur (i.e., performance to improve) and may be impractical (e.g., too many employees, not enough time). So, there is no easy answer, but certainly an important consideration.

Since employees do respond so poorly to negative reviews, are there even any benefits that come from giving them?

There are numerous benefits of performance reviews. For employees, a properly executed review (i.e., accurate, timely, thorough, practical, meaningful, ethical, etc.) can enhance motivation, clarify the job and its requirements, help establish realistic goals, help [the employees] gain insight on themselves, and increase their self-esteem. For organizations, effective systems can be invaluable when making administrative decisions, can help managers gain insight about the developmental needs of their employees, can serve as protection from lawsuits, can help determine the effectiveness of staffing procedures, and can help facilitate organizational change.

How can performance reviews be structured so they are less stressful on both the manager giving them and the employee receiving them?

There are many things that can be done. A quick answer is to do what it takes to ensure accuracy, and allow for employee participation in the process and final outcome. Make it a conversation that matters rather than a "check the box" event that all parties dread.

Originally published on Business News Daily.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.