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Conducting Performance Reviews? Get Out the Tissues

A woman sitting at a desk with a document in front of her.

"There's no crying in baseball," Tom Hanks' character in "A League of Their Own" tells a baseball player who bursts into tears after he lambasts her for a fielding error that costs her team a two-run lead.

There is, however, crying during and after performance reviews, according to the results of a new Adobe survey. Thirty-four percent of Millennials say they have been driven to tears during a performance review. And 25 percent of men of all ages—and 18 percent of women—have cried because of a review. The survey results reflect responses from 1,500 U.S. office workers queried in November and December 2016.

Mark Scott, vice president of corporate communications at Atlanta-based eVestment, has managed people and teams for about 25 years. He still remembers an encounter he had with an employee at another firm years ago. The company had not performed well financially that year, and raises—if given at all—were to be capped at around 2 percent. However, Scott's employee was "outstanding" and difficult to replace, he said. He fought for—and secured—a 5 percent raise for her.

When he gave her the news, she began bawling: She was expecting a 15 percent or 20 percent pay bump.

"I was floored," he told SHRM Online an e-mail. He left the room to allow the woman to compose herself. When they resumed the conversation, he explained that her raise was "extraordinary" under the circumstances. It was her first job out of college, and he said she had no idea that the raise she expected was "exceedingly rare" under the best circumstances.

He said he has learned to communicate company metrics and performance feedback throughout the year so that there are fewer surprises at the review.

He also advised managers to refrain from hugging or touching a distraught employee. In fact, he said, it's best to leave the room if an emotional outburst occurs.

"You may have the best relationship now, but if things become strained or the person gets on an improvement plan, that hug while he/she was crying could be brought back up against you" in a sexual harassment claim, he said in an e-mail.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Performance]

Focus on Constructive Feedback  

Heightened emotions during a performance review are understandable, said Marta Moakley, J.D., legal editor with Brightmine HR & Compliance Centre™ specializing in HR strategy and management, employee relations and communications. The culture may be very competitive or tolerant of employees displaying their feelings, either of which may lead to heightened emotions, she pointed out. The employee's relationship with the supervisor, the employee's state of mind during the review and how the review is handled can trigger an emotional reaction, she said.

In workplaces using forced rankings, "a bad review can trigger abrupt consequences for an employee, especially when there exists a possibility of termination," Moakley said in an e-mail.

She suggested managers who have had employees become emotional during a performance review to ask themselves:

  • Was the employee surprised by the review result? If so, the supervisor should work on communicating more frequently, even continuously, so that the employee has an opportunity to work on improving performance.   
  • Was the review conveyed in a way that was offensive to the employee?
  • Was the employee offered an opportunity to defend his or her actions?

"Acknowledging the response is important," she said. "Supervisors should focus on constructive feedback and measure their words," she added. "A supervisor should also 'stay on script,' and, while being empathetic, keep the conversation focused on business needs and performance. If the response is a departure from the employee's usual reactions, perhaps discussing stress is appropriate, along with suggestions to seek assistance through available programs."

Mick Wolcott, head of operations at San Francisco-based Internet company Good & Co. Labs Inc., recalled the weepy reaction of an employee he worked with at a California advertising agency. Her performance had been "substantially subpar" during the previous six months.

"Turned out she was having personal problems outside of the office, and it had begun to affect her performance at work," Wolcott said in an e-mail. "We helped her to contact an in-network therapist who specialized in the issues she was having. She returned to work and became much more productive."

Employees have lives outside of the workplace, he reminded HR professionals.

"The goal of a good HR professional is to ensure that your employees have the resources to be the best person they can be, inside and outside of the office."

Libby Farmen, chief consulting officer for Talent Plus Inc., in Lincoln, Neb., knows of one organization that brings in employee assistance program counselors during performance reviews. Something is off-kilter, she thinks, when a review becomes a setting "where someone feels they need to cry."

"It's time to change the conversation and move it to a conversation that talks about an experience that celebrates an employee. Yes, there are definitely times for hard conversations with employees," and those talks should take place through just-in-time coaching, Farmen added.

Be Supportive but Firm  

Matt Franks has had his share of weepy employees at performance reviews.

"Be empathetic, but do stick to the facts and keep it professional," Franks said in an e-mail. He is the founder of Chesterfield, U.K.-based dreambooth, which provides photo booths for events.

"Don't forget that crying can sometimes be a manipulative device by some people, so remember why you are having the meeting in the first place. If there is a genuine issue with this employee's performance, it needs to be addressed—tears or no tears."

It's important, though, to reassure employees that the purpose of a review is to help them address problematic areas, he added.

"It is not to simply tell them you are unhappy with their performance," he said. "Point out some areas in which you believe they are doing well to balance out the criticism and validate their position in the company."

Most managers have a good idea which employees may be more sensitive to less-than-positive feedback, noted Jana Tulloch, an HR professional working as a consultant at DevelopIntelligence, a software development training provider in Boulder, Colo.

In her role as a front-line and HR manager in public-sector industries around Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, she said she has had to deliver tough messages to staff members about their performance.

She suggested the following actions:


  • Offer to reschedule the meeting to the afternoon or the next morning if the review becomes too overwhelming for the employee, but don't delay it too long or water down your message.

  • Focus on the issue, not the person; keep the discussion centered on how to solve the problem at hand.

  • Ask employees what resources or training they need, and confirm that they understand the expectations of the job.

  • Schedule a time to meet in a few days to document what steps both of you will take to address the issue.

"The one thing I've learned is that it is important to be supportive and empathetic but firm," she said. "There is an issue that needs to be addressed, and, while sometimes employees can become emotional, ultimately they are responsible for their performance."  

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