Dear Jill: How Do You Handle Giving Bad Performance Reviews?

In our "Dear Jill" blog series, Operations & HR Executive Jill Mellott offers unique perspective on the workplace. Topics include: having tough conversations, handling difficult office situations, performance reviews, managing team conflict, and motivating underperformance. Have a challenge you need help tackling? Email Jill

Dear Jill: It's that time of year: Performance Reviews. These are easy for the good performers – I just say "good job". However, a conversation with a poor performer is more stressful to prepare for. They either know what's coming and are defensive, or are completely surprised by the negative feedback and take it personally and disengage. How do I handle these? Signed, Tough Talker

Dear Tough Talker: You're not alone in bracing yourself for unhappy team members and some poker faces on the other side of that table! Tough conversations don't have to be negative, though. First, please remember that the "good" performers need just as much, if not more, feedback as your "poor" performers.  In fact, according to Harvard Business Journal, a Gallup survey found that 67% of employees whose managers focused on their strengths were fully engaged in their work. This is compared to 31% of employees whose managers focused on their weaknesses.  Don't assume that the strong performer understands the span of their strengths. It is imperative you take the time to discuss strengths not yet reviewed and also provide ideas on how to improve and grow.

As for the harder conversations, I repeat 5 rules before any tough conversation. I learned these after a few failed tough conversations. I spent too much time worrying about how the person would feel during those feedback sessions and didn't provide the clear and actionable feedback the situation deserved.  According to Officevibe, 82% of employees really appreciate receiving feedback, regardless if it's positive or negative. So, make sure you're prepared on WHAT you will say and then follow these steps on HOW to say it:

Rule #1: Be concise.  Don't rush the conversation, but don't drag it out either. Give short and concise feedback. Repeating their underperformance in 5 different ways is devaluing and ineffective.

Rule #2: Be honest. Leave sugar coating and beating-around-the-bush for a different time (or not at all). When delivering hard-to-hear feedback, explain what the issue is, why it's an issue, and ways it can be improved. Clearly and honestly share what will happen if they do not improve.  Avoid words such as "sort of", "maybe", and "sometimes". Their behavior either "is" or "isn't" – be honest and move on!

Rule #3: Don't over-promise solutions. To make ourselves feel better in an awkward conversation, we often overcomplicate the situation. We may make excuses for the employee and then commit to fixing the problem ("you sort of have an attitude that sometimes insults others, but I know you have a lot on your plate. I'll talk with [my boss] to see if maybe we can get you more help.").  Although these may be fitting next steps they should only be stated if it's a true and viable action, not to help you feel better that you're delivering tough news. Similarly, if they are asking for a large salary increase, and you know it's not an option, don't promise you will help "make it happen". Sticking with your core message may be hard to do, but will actually make things easier in the long term.

Rule #4: Be professional, not personal. My biggest epiphany that I had to change the way I delivered tough feedback was during a termination. I was so worried that we were hurting the employee's feelings that I kept saying "you are such a good worker" and "your next employer will be lucky to have you" and "thank you for everything you've done for our company". Although these comments made me feel better, the employee didn't agree. She defensively asked, "If you think I'm so great, why are you letting me go?"  Since then, I've realized that the meetings are about the employee, not me. It's a hard conversation, which means you will feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is okay.

Rule #5: Have a plan going into the meeting and actions for both parties leaving the meeting. You don't need to fix the situation in this one meeting, but you do need to present steps to help you get there. A few examples: ask the employee to summarize the meeting and send you the minutes (this enables you to address any gaps in message vs. perception); ask the employee to research 2-3 trainings (including location, cost, time away, etc.) related to the areas you discussed and send them to you for review. It's imperative you always have a timeline to work towards rather than open-ended actions.  As you may notice, each of these actions are driven by the employee. As the leader of the meeting, you should document the entire meeting and as appropriate, share with HR and/or management. However, the immediate action coming out of the meeting should involve the employee. This keeps them engaged and accountable, especially since they are most likely not in full alignment with your review.

Make sure you prepare for ALL your reviews and follow these 5 steps for a more effective discussion. You've got this, Tough Talker!

Have a question or challenge for Jill to tackle? Email her

About the Author

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Jill Mellott has experience in operations, management, consulting and facilitation. She holds an undergraduate degree in Communication and a Master’s degree in Speech Communication, with an emphasis in rhetorical theory. Jill was recognized as Loudoun 40 Under 40 in 2016 as a Professional and Community Leader in Loudoun County, Virginia.

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