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Never Say These Horrible Things in a Performance Review, Unless You're a Dirtbag

Date: October 09, 2013

Obscurity and inconsistency are common themes in poorly handled reviews.

Tom Schwab remembers vividly the weirdest performance review he ever received. "When I was a Junior Officer in the U.S. Navy, my reviewing officer required me to write my own review and present it to him. As he read through it with red pen in hand he stopped writing long enough to look up at me and ask: Is dirtbag one word or two?"

That hurts. After all, the performance review can be a significant milestone, a moment when an employee gets a candid assessment of his or her successes and failures on the job.

It's easy for a supervisor to get it wrong.

Almost half of all HR professionals say annual performance reviews don't effectively appraise performance, and a similar number say that employees are not being rewarded for good job performance, according to a joint survey from the Society for Human Resource Management and recognition solutions provider Globoforce (see summary).

A consulting actuary with his own firm in Minneapolis, James van Iwaarden took a hit from a boss who wanted "more" but could not quite say what that meant. "My old boss was a good consultant but a lousy manager. He said: 'You're smart as hell, but not as smart as you think you are,'" van Iwaarden recalls.

What does that even mean? Van Iwaarden couldn't guess. "I just never figured out what action to take," he says.

RELATED: 8 Surefire Ways to Demotivate Employees

One executive coach recalls: "The annual feedback review meeting with my partner was unbearable for the words he said, which I'll never forget. 'Jessica, you're like a beautiful bouquet of flowers,' he said. He then leaned closer from across the table and continued, 'But I'm allergic to bees. You have one flower, and it's covered in bees.'"

Huh? She quit.

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Obscurity and inconsistency are common themes in the poorly handled review. "I was once told by a former employer that I had a 'union mentality,' an 'us against them' mentality," says Jeanine M. Boiko, owner of J9PR in Wantagh, New York. "That business went under and the boss who did my performance review is now a teacher in one of the biggest unions in the country. Go figure."

Getting It Wrong

A manager can go wrong in delivering the annual assessment in several ways. As van Iwaarden learned, the review can be too vague. Managers simply don't know the employee, or they are too scared to deliver candid feedback, says Nandi Shareef, a blogger for the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

A review can be too glowing. "Everything's perfect – until it's not and someone is fired," says Shareef. "We can't have employees thinking they're performing work just fine, only to have the rug pulled out from under them."

The boss is unprepared. You can't give a realistic assessment if you haven't reviewed the employee's work, gone through the achievements and the shortfalls, before sitting down for the interview.

It's all bad, no good. An all-negative review crushes morale. "I believe the rule says nine positives to one negative, or four positives to one negative… something like that," Shareef says. "Either way, the bottom line is we can't just slam our employees. We must give them feedback on where they’ve been successful as well as areas for improvement."

Getting It Right

How to avoid the common traps? Blogging for the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Director of Talent & Administration Brian Hughes offers the following tips.

  • Match the review to the mission. A performance review doesn't happen in a vacuum. Is the employee doing well? That's part of the exercise, but it's even more important to ask whether the employee is doing well in pushing the company toward its mission and goals.
  • Guide with goals. The employee's performance ought not to be judged in the abstract. Rather, each worker should have personal goals and developmental milestones toward which they are working. A review needs to look at progress toward those benchmarks.
  • Follow through. If an employee needs to improve, help them to do it. The review is just a starting point. The manager's real work comes in following up to ensure that employee is progressing in those areas in need of improvement.

RELATED: 5 Lessons Learned from 'Best Places to Work'

Tom Schwab would add one more: Check your humor at the door.

His boss may have gotten a chuckle from the dirtbag crack, but Schwab wasn't laughing. "Ultimately I discovered it was a common joke, and his review was more glowing than the one I had written," says Schwab, now owner of Goodbye Crutches in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "But for a while, I wondered if my career was over before it started."

READ NEXT: You’re the Boss—So Who Reviews You?

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