It’s Hard to Write a Good Employee Performance Evaluation. Get Over It.

Man_yelling_into_megaphoneEmployee performance reviews are hard, aren’t they? Much fuss is made about them–by senior management, by HR, by Legal, and, of course, by the employee receiving the review. Get over it.  That’s what separates managers from non-managers. 

Writing a performance review is a learned skill and requires a lot of practice to get even close to getting them “right.”  Yet, many (or most) companies fail to provide training to supervisors on how to prepare an effective and legally compliant employee performance review.  If you’re one of those companies, do yourself a favor and start that training now.  If you’re a supervisor in one of those companies, here’s the top 3 things you can do now to write a better performance evaluation.


1.  Be [Painfully] Honest. 

Do not sugar-coat your comments.  Yes, it can hurt to give a less-than stellar performance review.  Too bad–it’s your job.  And it’s also in your own best interest.  Just ask any supervisor who’s had to testify in a discrimination case brought by a former employee where the cross-examination went like this:

Q:  Mr. Jones, why did you terminate Mr. Smith?

A:  Because Mr. Smith was a terrible employee.

Q:  Can you give the jury some examples of the terrible conduct?

A:  Oh, sure.  He was always late.  He didn’t get along with any of his co-0workers and was always causing disagreements in the office.  He was disrespectful and insubordinate, making inappropriate comments to me and other managers regularly.

Q: Anything else?

A:  Yes, actually.  He had an overall terrible attitude.  He was not a team player.  He refused to help his coworkers.  Just overall hostile to everyone.

Q:  I’d like to move in Plaintiff’s Exhibit 8, please.  Mr. Jones, can you please tell the Court what that document is that I’ve just entered into evidence?

A:  This is Mr. Smith’s performance evaluation.  This was the last one I wrote for him–probably about 4 months before he was fired.

Q:  And what rating did you give Mr. Smith in this employee performance evaluation?

A:  “Satisfactory.”

Q:  So, Mr. Jones, were you lying then or are you lying now?


2.  Use Your Big-Boy [or -Girl] Words

We know you’ve got some in that vocabulary of yours.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made you a big-boy [or -girl] boss.  Well, this is the time to use them.  And we’re not talking about big words, as in the number of letters.  We’re talking about descriptive words.  Words that actually describe some action, attitude, incident, or conduct.

My second-grade English teacher prohibited the use of “very”, “clearly”, “nice” and “good.”  Why?  Because they’ve lost meaning through overuse.  The same applies to you.  Heck, go crazy and grab that dust-covered thesaurus from your bookshelf (or just use an online thesaurus and save yourself the allergies).

I’ll even get you started with some examples:

Don’t write:  Bob has good communication skills.

Do write:  Bob generated several well-written memos during the budgeting process that were particularly useful in guiding our assessment decisions.

Or, write:  During planning meetings, Bob actively listens to his coworkers without disruption and, when appropriate, shares his position candidly but respectfully.

Don’t write:  Jessica’s sales numbers last quarter were very good.

Do write:  Last quarter, Jessica exceeded her projected sales by 18%.

Or write:  Jessica’s sales have increased by at least 12% for the last 5 quarters–far exceeding the levels of sustained increased demonstrated by her colleagues.

Don’t write:  Ron needs to improve his attention to detail.

Write:  Although Ron’s work is submitted promptly, he seems to compromise accuracy for timeliness.  The finishing details of his projects, such as the final budget calculations, frequently contain errors.

Or write:  In an attempt to be as thorough as possible, Ron’s reports often contain more data than is necessary.  This results in a cluttered presentation, which appears cluttered and disorganized.  Some additional attention given to the aesthetic of the report will prevent this problem.

3.  Prove It.

That’s right.  Don’t just say it.  Back it up.  Give a specific example for each area you’re asked to comment on.  Too difficult?  If you can’t articulate a specific example, then don’t write it.  If called on later to support the evaluation, it’s a sure bet that you won’t be able to produce any examples then.  So write it down now.

It also gives you credibility with the employee.  Without examples, what makes you think the employee is going to believe you?  He thinks he is a great employee.  Do you think he’ll change his mind with a comment like, “improve attention to detail”?  Doubtful.  On the other hand, if you spell it out with real examples, including how the employee’s conduct impacted his co-workers, the team, or the organization as a whole, it’s a lot more difficult to challenge the validity of the review.

I know you’re getting the hang of it now, so I’ll give just one example.

Instead of:  Jackie’s attendance needs improvement.

Try:  Jackie has been absent 8 times this quarter–far exceeding the 2 absences permitted by company policy.  More troubling is that, on 6 of the 8 occasions, Jackie called out of work just before her shift started.  These unplanned absences require her supervisor to find a substitute at the last minute.  Not only is this an inconvenience to her coworkers, but it often requires the company to pay the substitute at a premium hourly rate, which is an unnecessary and avoidable expense.