What You Should NOT Say in a Performance Review

What You Should NOT Say in a Performance Review

Do you know how, as a manager, to avoid some very common mistakes made in performance reviews that can lead to legal problems, should the employee take action later? Many do not.

A Basic Example

Let's imagine one of your employees is Fred, a 55-year-old whose productivity drops over the year.

Instead of citing specific, measurable examples of this decline in his performance review, you note that "Fred doesn't seem to have the energy level anymore to truly succeed in this department." Still, you rate Fred's work as "average," the same as last year, as he does still turn up and do his job.

What's wrong with that? This simple example actually highlights two of the more common—and legally dangerous—pitfalls in writing performance reviews:

1. Evaluating attitude, not performance.

Vague statements that attack an employee's demeanor could be interpreted as some kind of illegal age, race, gender or disability discrimination by a court. Instead, supervisors should use concrete, job-based examples to illustrate any criticism.

In the example above, referring to Fred's "energy level" could easily give him reason to complain about age discrimination. Instead, the review should have cited examples such as, "Fred has completed three of the five major projects late this quarter and has not contributed one new product idea in six months."

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For this reason, the word "attitude" should never appear in a review. Employment lawyers and courts often see that as a code word for discrimination.

2. Evaluation inflation.

Supervisors too often rate mediocre employees as competent, competent employees as above average and above-average employees as superior. The problem comes when an employee is fired for poor performance yet his history of reviews tells a different story. The employee, then, has supposed proof that the real reason for the firing was something else, maybe something illegal.

It's up to you – either risk skipping or doing poor reviews that lead to risk lower morale, decreased productivity, and potential legal trouble if you need to terminate … or make your performance review system the most powerful tool possible, not only to assess past work but also to help your employees meet future goals.

Here are the main causes of evaluation inflation. Do any sound familiar to you?

Misinterpreting a rating scale or instructions.

Example: Using a review with a 0-4 rating scale, a supervisor gives an employee a "2" in attendance and fires her. She sues, arguing that a "2" is average and acceptable, and wins. The supervisor wrongly believed that anything less than a "4" rating was unacceptable.

Fear of confronting employees.

Example: A worker has acceptable work quality but hurts morale because of poor teamwork and pushiness. To avoid an angry confrontation, the boss rates the employee as average in soft skills.

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Giving positive areas too much weight over negative ones.

Example: A manager rates a factory worker on quality, quantity, dependability, teamwork and safety. Quality is poor, but she rates it average because of the "glow" from the other categories, all rated above average.

To determine if you inflate reviews, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who are my worst performers?
  • Knowing what I know about them, would I hire them again?
  • Do their reviews reflect their true performance?

Then take those answers and apply them, carefully, to their next performance review.

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