Solutions to a painful performance review

By Rhonda Campbell
Few things create an equal amount of discomfort in employees and managers like a performance review discussion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mid-year or year-end performance review template that has to be discussed and signed off on. Hidden in the dread is a remedy, a solution that could improve morale, increase employee engagement and enrich customer satisfaction.

Problems with performance review discussions

So, why do employees and managers get anxious when human resources emails an announcement about performance review goals and performance review comments? For starters (this is where most of the rub generates from), aside from meeting with employees to discuss their performance review achievements, managers don’t regularly sit down with their employees to discuss how they are tracking.

Reluctance to keep one-on-one communication open with their team members creates uncertainty. Avery Augustine, manager at a tech firm, recommends that managers schedule one-on-ones on their calendars (and keep the meetings).

It helps to write down key discussion points. These discussion points would be raised throughout the year, not just while preparing to sign off on a performance review template. For example, managers could note that they will talk about their employees’ project management skills, especially as it relates to developing and sticking to timelines. Managers could also plan to discuss employees’ adverse or abrupt communication style.

Examples of positive points to bring up in performance review comments are one or more innovative or process improvement ideas employees raised and leadership roles employees volunteered to take on and succeeded at. It’s these same points that should be discussed while managers and employees develop performance reviews goals.

Poor manager communication harms performance review process

Some managers hold weekly one-on-one meetings with their employees. Other managers meet with their team members on a biweekly basis. Anything less than this and managers could start making excuses to cancel meetings.

Employees appreciate (and value) managers who are clear in their communications. Nancy Morris, a business psychology specialist, learned this first hand. She learned the value of clear performance feedback from both sides of the table.

While she managed other employees, she said that she “didn’t make things clear.” She was afraid to bring up uncomfortable issues. At the root of the discomfort was her focus on being diplomatic. Later, Nancy was caught off guard when she was laid off from a job. Once again, she learned the importance of being clear when communicating with employees.

Fallout of performance reviews 

Being too diplomatic and wanting to be liked by employees keeps managers from having difficult performance conversations. The fallout of this practice is far reaching. Workplace consultant, Steve Langerud, shares in Forbes that, “I have one client who, over many years, has been kind and avoided direct conversations about performance with employees.”

The outcome? Steve says that, “The result now it is hard to address issues that are impacting the organizations.”

Lawsuits also result when managers pull back on adding areas of improvement for employees in performance review comments. No one wants to be told that she is performing up to standards only to be told, months later, that she is getting laid off.

Taking the ache out of performance discussions


To reduce their discomfort (or perhaps guilt), managers may cite an “open door” policy. However, “open door” is often just a catch phrase. As Eric Jackson, founder and managing partner of Ironfire Capital LLC, shares in Forbes, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chatted with lazy bosses who use that line: ‘Oh, my people know I have an open-door policy and they can come to me to talk about anything at any time.’”

Jackson goes on to reveal that, “I would say 80% of the time in those cases, if I went to the reports and they answered me honestly, they would say that they typically don’t go to the boss because he or she is always on the phone or looks too busy.” Clearly, if managers met with employees at least once a week as well as offered employees instant feedback after they completed a project, resolved a customer’s complaint or closed a client sale, feedback provided in performance reviews wouldn’t come as a shock.

Steps to improve performance review reports and discussions

Steps managers (and employees) could take to make the performance review process smoother, less emotionally taxing, include:

  • Set clear goals and deadlines at the start of the review period (by putting these goals and deadlines in writing, managers could avoid disagreements during performance appraisal meetings)
  • Keep notes throughout the year on employees’ performance
  • Meet with employees on a weekly basis to learn about challenges they’re experiencing, to communicate new performance objectives, etc.
  • Direct employees to provide their feedback first, detailing how they met their goals (this process is often referred to as completing self-appraisals)
  • Schedule face-to-face meetings to discuss feedback provided in performance appraisals
  • Acknowledge extra work employees have taken on, especially if they absorbed the jobs of one or two other people after a downsizing, etc.
  • Give employees time to ask questions, suggest their short and long-term career goals, talk about their concerns around upcoming changes at your organization (i.e. mergers, acquisitions, relocations)
  • Follow-up with employees about key points discussed in reviews (this shows employees that their managers genuinely care about their work and their careers)

By receiving performance review training from human resource specialists, managers could discover additional steps they could take to improve their employee communications. They could also learn quicker ways to document employee performance, whether they’re using paper documents or a performance management system.

Above all, it’s crucial for managers to be honest with employees before, during and after they discuss their performance. And again, this is made easier if managers regularly communicate with their workers. It’s this honest feedback, immediate praise and acknowledgement of above average results that could improve employee morale and engagement. Furthermore, as worker satisfaction increases, communications workers have with customers may also improve.

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