How to neutralize in advance the annual toxic performance review

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In my previous post, I explored the reasons behind why so many performance reviews go badly, and the choices that a manager has when there is disagreement of what was documented in the annual performance review.  From the employee’s perspective, when there is disagreement, it is a surprise review.  None of the choices are good for either the employee or the manager when this happens, so it needs to be avoided. 

Here are some tips for managers on how to avoid the tense and toxic review:

  1. DON’T wait until the annual review to tell the employee how you think that the employee is doing.  If you’re doing this, then you are dooming yourself to some pretty awkward and costly moments during the review discussion.
  2. DO provide performance feedback to the employee throughout the year.  This means that you need to have discussions throughout the year with the employee before the annual review about what you think the employee is doing well, and what you would like the employee to do differently.  This provides the “view.”
  3. DO follow up during the year on whether behaviors you have provided feedback on have improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse.  Let’s say you ask your employee Jim to be more succinct when presenting to the VP.  Then, without directly following up with Jim, you write on the review: “I asked Jim to be more succinct when speaking to the VP, but he still always went over his allotted time.”  That’s a mistake.  You have to tell Jim that he still isn’t being succinct enough prior to the review.  And to him directly (not over email).  This goes for good behaviors too.  If your employee improves or is already strong, you have to provide this information prior to the review.
  4. DO mention the things you have provided performance feedback about on the review.   This way, when you do the review, it is consistent with what was already discussed, meeting the standard of being a re-view.
  5. DON’T write about something on the review that you have never talked about prior to the annual review process.  If you have never discussed something with the employee, then it really didn’t exist as something related to the employee’s annual performance, and doesn’t merit mention on the review.
  6. DON’T write about employee behaviors you haven’t provided your interpretation of.  If you have never provided your interpretation as to whether the employee’s behaviors help or hurt, then you shouldn’t mention this on the review.  Here’s an example:  Your employee Jim may submit a lengthy daily status report, and you find it annoying that it comes this frequently.  However, you talk about what’s on the status report all the time, perhaps even saying “Thank you for the status report” on occasion.  At the end of the year, you say on the review, “Jim can improve with his status reports.  They should come in only once a week.”   This will freak out Jim.  Don’t do it.  It isn’t worth it. 
  7. DO say when providing feedback, “This is something we’ll keep checking in on, as it is important to your performance.”  This makes it clear that this is something that will likely be mentioned on the review, the employee will actually expect to see it on the review—even if ultimately the assessment is that the employee didn’t meet performance expectations.
  8. DO make sure that the things you are providing performance feedback and checking in on are actually important to the performance of the employee.  The time of day the employee takes lunch may not be that big a deal.  Whether or not the employee completes deliverables is a big deal.  Focus on things that matter.
  9. I’ll repeat tips two and three:  DO provide performance feedback, both positive and “needs improvement”, throughout the year.  Of course, if the employee is doing only good work, focus on the positive and don’t search for negatives. And check in as to whether the behaviors have changed prior to the review. If the employee actually does improve in the behaviors you’ve provided feedback on, then you should mention this on the review!

Have you ever received or given a review where the manager’s and employee’s experience didn’t match?  What were your options at that point?  Have you ever received or given a review with content that was never discussed verbally?  How much do you provide performance feedback on an ongoing basis?  What are your tips for neutralizing the toxic annual review?

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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  1. […] my next post, I’ll be providing tips on how to avoid the annual toxic performance review, and turn it into the […]

  2. […] either the manager or the employee reference in the review actual feedback conversations (or what I also refer to as “employee strategy sessions”) that happened external to the review […]

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