Performance reviews can be a valuable part of a good program of employee development tools. Well-written, thoughtful reviews that are discussed with employees in a non-confrontational setting and are geared toward honest feedback and improved performance can give confidence to employees to strive to do better in their jobs while improving communications between employees and management. And if the process is managed well, performance reviews will help limit corporate liability in the event of an employment relationship gone bad.
Unfortunately, many companies with the best of intentions spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on creating review processes and documents only to have them mishandled and later used as weapons against the company. Managers are not trained well enough in how to write or deliver reviews. Important information is left out. Human Resources generalists are not used by management to help execute the review process. If the employee is later terminated, performance reviews become the perfect evidence of a company’s failure to alert the employee to performance issues in a meaningful way.
Managers must strike a balance in reviews between giving recognition for good work and improvement, and being clear about areas of performance that are lacking and need development. It is human nature to want to be liked and many managers are loathe to put something in writing that they think will make the performance review meeting unpleasant. After all, who wants to go into a meeting with an employee who is known to become defensive and adversarial?
Many times, these employees receive “softball” reviews because the manager wants to avoid a difficult confrontation. The review will tell the employee what he or she did well and make generalized statements about areas that need to be improved. Or worse yet, areas of needed improvement are not mentioned at all, despite places in the forms to include that information.
By giving credit where is due, the employee feels recognized for his or her hard work. But if the relationship does not last and you need to terminate the employee six months later, you don’t want to meet with your in-house counsel to explain why the performance review did not go into detail about all the ways in which the employee was not meeting standards and resulted in termination of employment. That review will be used as evidence that the company did not communicate the serious problems with the employee’s performance.
As a result, the credibility of the manager who claims the employee was the worst thing since sliced bread is thoroughly undermined. Your in-house employment counsel will wonder how the employee went from a consistent “met all” standard to an employee who had to be terminated for poor performance. And you will have created the very document that will be used to make you look like a bad manager. For example, take the review of an employee who is ill tempered, does not partner well with co-workers, and always blames others for his or her own failings. The manager has discussed the issue with the employee for one year (without keeping meeting notes), and only short-lived, slight improvements are noticed. It’s gotten to a point that the employee needs the hard feedback to understand the seriousness of what needs to be done for continued employment.
The review from a manager who is ill-prepared to deal with the issue may include something like:
I have seen some improvements in your relationships with your co-workers and you have tried to be clearer with others about your expectations of them and what they can expect from you. You are responsive to email requests for assistance and I received three “kudos” on your behalf from members of the accounting department. Keep working on it.
Some very key items are missing from the review that could help make the difference in whether the employee succeeds, and if he or she doesn’t succeed, could help the company avoid liability for wrongful termination. Perhaps the review should have said something like:
I’ve talked to you 4 times in the past year (include dates of the meetings) about your quick temper, poor relationships with co-workers, and your failure to acknowledge your own role in these issues. I’ve told you how important it is to your job that you become someone who is approachable at work and a desired partner on business teams. We’ve discussed several specific incidents in the last year (list incidents) and talked about how you could have handled them differently.
I have seen some improvements in how you are handling your temper and relationships and see that you are making efforts. I also have been told that you are clarifying for others what you need from them when you team together and you are explaining what they can expect of you. That is good communication and good partnership and shows that you can be thoughtful about what needs to be done. In fact, I received a few “kudos” from the accounting department about how helpful you’ve been. Your efforts are good.
These are first steps but are not enough. The issues about your relationships continue to come up (include some examples) and the behavior issues are the same. It takes a lot of our time away from work to discuss the problems. I believe you are capable of making changes, as I can see from the improvements I discussed above. These changes need to be much more consistent for you to be fully effective at your job.
You are technically proficient but you also need to show that you are well rounded in the interpersonal skills it takes to succeed. It is very important that you accept your contribution to the problems and make continued concerted efforts to address them. I believe you take the issues seriously and I need to see that demonstrated in your ongoing behavior with co-workers and in conversations with me. If you do not know how to handle an issue, I expect you to come to me to discuss it and I will help coach you.
What an amazing difference. The second version of the review recognizes the problem, applauds the improvements and stresses the need to make further improvements while also creating the record the company may need if the employee is terminated and sues for wrongful termination. Striking the balance between giving positive recognition and constructive feedback is fairer to the employee because you communicate the true issue, and it helps support the company if that is needed later. Writing and delivering reviews is not always easy or pleasant. But it should always be done honestly, clearly, and on time!
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.