Performance reviews are one of the most dreaded management responsibilities for new supervisors and are often uncomfortable for seasoned managers. There is no template for a review because each employee is unique. Using a standardized form is helpful in completing the paperwork, but the interview can be unpredictable. This is not a legal advisory on performance reviews. It is a conversation where I want to share the many years of practical experience I have in creating and implementing performance management systems. This management advisory was designed to help you reduce anxiety, conduct effective performance reviews, and master the process.


Q. What is the purpose of a performance review since we all know that most employees do not want them?


A. You are right. 98 percent of employees surveyed said they dread them, but the true purpose of a performance review is to help employees develop in their jobs. The notion that employees do not want them is false. Everyone wants to know how he/she is doing, but employees often fear they will hear unexpected bad news and will not get help to improve.


Q. Is there a performance review system that is better than any other?


A. No. The system you use should fit the needs of your workforce. Every system should have some sort of rating that lets employees know where they stand. The system does not need to be one to five or poor to outstanding, but it should be a system that lets the employee understand where he or she stands relative to the expectation.


Q. Our system requires me to enter a rating of one (poor) to five (outstanding). Should I view a rating of three as the rating for employees who do a good job?


A. Yes. On a rating scale of one to five, the majority score somewhere around 3. If you think of the Bell Curve that is used statistically to spread data over an entire population, or the way a teacher grades students in school, you may remember from studying statistics that about two-thirds are right around the middle of the curve.


Q. If three is the rating for a good employee performing at the level we expect, why do employees get upset when they do not get all fives?


A. Employees sometimes think if they do not get all fives, then they are failures. It is your job to explain that a rating of five means there is no room for improvement and everyone should have some room to grow.


Q. Is there any danger in giving a good employee all fives if I know it will make him feel better and less emotional about the review?


A. One of the dangers in rating your good employee as exceptional just to make him feel better is expectation. If an employee scores at the exceptional level, then the employee will be expected to perform at that level. Should you leave and another supervisor takes your place, the new supervisor may view the employee as inferior based on the review information versus the actual performance. In addition, if the employee develops a problem and it becomes necessary to terminate the employment relationship, how would you defend your decision to terminate when you have a performance review that states, in writing, that the employee is extraordinary? These two reasons alone should convince you that a truthful and accurate rating is essential and in the best interest of everyone.


Q. I am a first-time supervisor and these are my first reviews. Do I give the employee a copy of the finished review prior to the time of the actual performance review interview?


A. Some systems require you to give the employee the form in advance; the employee completes a section, returns it to the manager and then the manager finishes the review before the actual performance interview. Many supervisors give the employee the paperwork in advance, which allows the actual interview to be more focused.


Q. How much of my time should I spend talking with the employee about past performance?


A. Only 20 percent. Since we agree that the past is gone and we cannot bring it back, we want to spend most of the time talking about how the employee should change his/her performance and improve in the future.


Q. How long should a performance appraisal interview last?


A. Probably an hour at the longest, except for senior level managers and leaders. Make certain it is private and never interrupted except for an emergency. That means the phone is silenced.


Q. What should I say if the employee tells me he/she does not agree with my rating?


A. Tell your employee that you have made the best possible decision with the information known to you about his/her performance. Remind him/her that you have considered the entire review period and used your best judgment. Do not apologize for your ratings, as you understand that it affects his/her future and you have been as prudent as possible in doing the review. Encourage him/her to think about it for a few days and find something useful in the evaluation.


Q. What if he/she becomes upset and cries? What should I do?


A. Tears are an emotional release for some people. Please allow him/her to cry. In fact, you may want to ask him/her if he/she would like to be excused from the interview for a few minutes to regain his/her composure and then continue. Do not be afraid of tears and do not shut down the performance interview. Employees never benefit from using emotion to prevent being told what they do not want to hear.


Q. I once had an employee who was very angry because he knew his review would not allow him to get a raise. He threatened to sue me and my company. Is that possible?


A. Anger is a method of releasing emotion. Keep in mind that people can always sue. That is the freedom of living in America. However, the question is “Can they win?” I have never heard of any employee who was successful suing a supervisor for delivering a performance review score that was unfavorable, unless the reason for the score was blatant discrimination (against race, age, gender, etc.). Employees who threaten to sue are usually trying to intimidate us. Just stay the course. Your duty is to provide an accurate and thoughtful review of performance.


Q. I have a great sales representative who has terrible time management problems. I don’t want to demotivate him but I want him to find a way to gain better control of his time. How do I approach this deficiency? Is this the time for a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)?


A. Your sales representative needs both praise and coaching. The PIP is reserved for employees who have been coached and counseled, but have not improved. Start with praise. Tell the employee what you appreciate about his work. Remind him of his strengths. Then tell him that he has a deficiency that is holding him back now that will interfere with his success in the future. Tell him that time management issues are causing him to perform lower than great. He is already good but you want him to get to great. Make suggestions, if you have any, about how he can improve and offer to help him. The usual problem is the failure to use a daily planner, a calendar, a task list, or journal, to keep track of time, deadlines and commitments. Do not let an employee settle for being a good employee when you know he is capable of becoming great.


Q. I have been told that I should provide the positive feedback first and then the negative feedback. Is that the right approach?


A. It is. If you provide positive feedback, then negative feedback, the employee is not pre-occupied with negative thoughts when you give him/her your recommendations for improvement. Be sure you do not try to tuck the negative comments in between two positive comments. This approach has been labeled “The Oreo Approach” named after the famous chocolate and crème cookie. Using this method dilutes or loses the impact of the improvement needs because the employee remembers what he/she heard first (primacy) or last (recency). The middle of the conversation gets lost.


Q. What should I do if the employee asks for a copy of his review?


A. I hope you will give the employee a copy of the review. It is a roadmap if you did it right. It lets the employee know what he/she is doing well and what areas need attention. There is no problem in giving an employee a copy of the finished review.


Q. I have always been told there are legal consequences from performance reviews. Should I worry about that?


A. I would never worry about that. If I have been fair and as objective as possible, then I know the form will reflect that. You must feel comfortable to do your job. The real danger is in overrating a poor performer, changing a rating after feeling intimidated by an angry employee, or entering false information to retaliate against an employee. Those are the only things I have ever seen that are problems, because the employee will use that information later if there is a termination.

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Nancye M. Combs is a human resources consultant with HR Enterprises Inc. and is HARDI’s HR and Organizational Management Consultant. She has more than four decades of practical experience in human resources. This advisory article is not designed to replace the services of a competent legal advisor and is not specific to the laws of any specific state.