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Performance Appraisal Bombshells: Delivering Bad News


A man is talking to a woman on the phone.


The first rule of performance reviews is that employees should never be surprised by what is said. Assuming that managers are speaking with their reports in real time throughout the year, providing transparent communication and soliciting feedback, the information discussed during a review should be a summary of past conversations.

But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes, a manager will need to introduce information that may be new to the employee, especially if the manager has been accepting performance flaws in the past but is now ready to address shortcomings. How the manager introduces and, more importantly, explains new negative feedback is critical to gaining employee buy-in and understanding, even if the employee is caught off guard.

Acknowledging Challenges

Let's assume you are a people manager and you have a problematic employee who has been with the company for ages, demonstrates an entitlement mentality and a resistance to change, and has built an invisible wall around himself to fend off peers and associates. While preparing for the review, you realize that you've been guilty of sweeping things under the rug and leaving unaddressed matters that should have been handled long ago. In addition, your boss or HR informs you that the organization is now taking a much more serious approach to performance reviews and expects you to document the individual's multiple shortcomings clearly, perhaps because cutbacks are in the works.  

"Many organizations are taking a serious look at their performance appraisal programs to spike individual performance, team productivity and bottom-line results as we emerge from the pandemic," said John Horn, vice president of human resources for L.A. Family Housing in North Hollywood, Calif. "As such, they're requiring concrete, accurate feedback in the review as an opportunity to level-set the record and place greater focus on future individual and team performance expectations." 

Even without a change of corporate heart as to what the performance review exercise is supposed to accomplish, you may feel that you can't issue a passing score in good conscience when the employee fails on so many different levels—in this case, job performance, customer care and behavior with peers. How do you "fail someone" when you haven't addressed the issues throughout the performance period? 

"You know by heart that people should rarely be surprised on their annual performance reviews, but you also know that many managers don't practice effective performance management, resulting in employees' scores that are regularly inflated at both their existing organization and at other organizations where they've worked in the past," Horn said.

Key Strategies to Follow

When it's time for you to issue poor scores due to problematic performance or conduct that was not discussed at the time it occurred, you'll likely have to assume responsibility for your failure to communicate in real time, but you need to issue the "bombshell" appraisal nevertheless. This won't be easy, but there are strategies to make the process more tolerable and reasonable.

First, understand that you're not alone. "By far one of the biggest mistakes that managers make lies in inflating grades on performance reviews," said Angie Baird, director of HR and risk management for San Juan County in Friday Harbor, Wash. "The path of least resistance is avoidance, and to minimize confrontation, many managers give 'meets expectations' scores to underachievers or workers with poor behavioral records."

This same documentation, however, can come back to haunt you should the organization later look to terminate. Why? Because with no progressive disciplinary documentation and only "acceptable" performance reviews on record, it would be difficult to terminate the employee for cause or invoke a layoff or position elimination. Remember, layoffs typically require "peer group analysis" to determine who the least qualified individual is to assume the remaining job duties in a particular job classification. If the employee in question has significant tenure and no disciplinary history, you'll likely be required to choose someone else in that job classification to let go, not the employee with the most problematic performance and conduct challenges.   

As a general rule, if you suspect that you may have to terminate someone in the coming year, you should ensure that the performance review accurately depicts why the employee's performance and/or conduct does not meet expectations.

"An objective performance review with concrete examples of an employee's shortcomings is a critical tool that supervisors can leverage to correct an employee's performance or conduct," Baird said. "And, if the performance or conduct does not improve, the performance review, combined with other progressive disciplinary measures, lays the groundwork for a defensible business decision to terminate the individual for cause or lay him off during a corporate downsizing."

That's how important performance reviews are in terms of defending a company's actions relative to terminations and layoffs.

The Mea Culpa

The fairest and most transparent way to address this challenge includes laying out the reasoning behind your decision and taking responsibility for the lack of feedback throughout the review year. For example:

"Roger, I recognize that we haven't formally discussed you not getting along well with others over the past year, but I felt it appropriate to bring this issue to your attention during the annual performance review because it's so serious and such a critical aspect of your overall contribution to the department. Likewise, I've overlooked a number of performance issues that have occurred throughout the review period in the form of missed calculations, errors and necessary rework because you appear to have rushed through assignments on multiple occasions. I know that you're aware that I feel like I have a continuous need to double-check most of your work, and the quantity and quality of errors remains of significant concern. We've discussed you not thinking things through or making the same error on monthly reports, and I'll need to document this in this year's review.

"I'll start with an apology: I realize that I should have shared more of this with you at the time these incidents occurred, but I was guilty of avoiding the confrontation and hoping the problem would simply fix itself. I realize now that wasn't fair to you. That being said, we can't avoid the issue any longer. This performance review window is the ideal time to discuss our concerns because it's intended to provide feedback, reset expectations and guide your career development going forward. Just so you're aware, I've discussed this with Sara, my boss and our department head, because she's expressed concerns about your performance and conduct, as well. Of course, you're more than welcome to discuss this with her and escalate the matter to HR if you'd like.

"I'll make a commitment to you now to bring these matters to your attention immediately whenever I notice them in the future, but my main message to you during this performance review is that you're not currently meeting company expectations because of these significant challenges. Again, I apologize for not addressing some of these situations on the spot at the time they occurred or expressing how much they concerned me, and I'll commit to you that I'll bring this to your attention whenever I see an issue from now on. But it's significant enough to formally document now and to reset expectations going forward. Let's look at how I documented this on the review itself and the examples, development plan and future goals that I've outlined ..."

Resetting Expectations amid Hurt Feelings

Resetting expectations going forward is unlikely to be easy, and you may face stiff resistance. The employee will likely disagree with your assessment and look to escalate the matter to the department head and/or HR, claiming it's unfair because you failed to discuss many of the documented issues at the time they occurred. That may be true to a degree, but you also have the right as the manager to "start somewhere." It won't be pretty doing it this way because you never want people to feel blindsided, but resetting your own commitment to share concerns at the time they occur will likely help. 

Detail your expectations in the appraisal very clearly. List in well-defined terms how you expect this individual to communicate with team members and customers, create a friendly and inclusive work environment, and resolve conflict in a constructive manner.  Emphasize the positive benefits that will result from such a turnaround, including stronger teamwork, greater customer service and lightening the tone in the office. But don't shy away from your responsibility: Admit your shortcomings in not sharing your concerns earlier, and hold the individual accountable to higher performance and conduct standards going forward, starting now. Expect some lingering resentment but know that it will heal in time if the employee is able to step up to meet these revised expectations.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, a certified executive coach and the author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). His other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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