10 Ways Managers Botch Performance Evaluations

Performance evaluations often get a bad rap by people who see them as a bureaucratic waste of time. And, yes, if you treat performance evaluations that way – each one an exercise you just have to get through so you can say it was done – that’s exactly what they’ll be. But when done right, by good managers, performance evaluations can be meaningful and useful, both to the employee and the manager evaluating her.

However, even the best managers struggle with evaluations. Here are some of the most common mistakes managers make during performance evaluation time – and how to avoid them.

 

1. Thinking performance evaluations don’t matter.

Evaluations serve three important functions:

  • First, they ensure that the manager and the employee are on the same page about how the employee is doing. Managers and employees are often out of alignment on this; managers think they’ve given clear messages (good or bad), but employees haven’t absorbed them. By formally measuring the employee’s results against the manager’s expectations, evaluations send some of the clearest messages you can send about how things are going.
  • Second, they give you both a chance to step back and talk about how the employee can grow and improve. For struggling employees, this is usually obvious, since the evaluation should just be the latest installment in a conversation you’ve already been having. But for good employees, it’s an opportunity to talk formally about how they can go from good to great, or from great to … well, it’s a good time to figure out what they should be striving for next.
  • And they also give you a forum to talk in-depth about how the lessons and experiences of the past year should influence plans for the coming year. By systematically reviewing what went well and not-so-well over the past year, you can make far stronger plans for the coming one.

2. Waiting until an evaluation to give feedback.

Evaluations serve the functions described in #1 above, but they’re not a substitute for regular, ongoing feedback throughout the year. In fact, if anything in an evaluation is a surprise to the employee, it’s a sign that the manager hasn’t been doing her job.

3. Procrastinating.

Putting off a performance evaluation sends a terrible message because it signals that the manager doesn’t care about the employee’s professional development. Generally, you should plan to allow yourself at least two hours to write each appraisal, and allow another hour to meet with each employee individually. Get this on your calendar well ahead of time!

4. Not focusing on the employee’s results.

Managers often neglect to look at what should be the central question in an evaluation: What results is the employee getting? Instead, the focus frequently ends up on how the employee does her work (such as how she interacts with others), rather than what she is getting done. To understand how problematic this is, try to imagine a manager ignoring a finance director’s results and focusing instead solely on how she interacts with people: “Well, we’re hemorrhaging money, but the staff loves you. Great job!”

Of course, how someone approaches her job matters too, and looking at that can give you a chance to provide feedback that can help in professional development and skill-building.  But the problem arises when evaluations focus on soft skills to the exclusion of actual results. Really, the most fundamental questions an evaluation should address are: What were the employee’s goals this year? Did she achieve them?

5. Not being direct about problem areas.

If you have any concerns about an employee, they must be included in the evaluation. It’s potentially uncomfortable, yes, but it’s also your obligation as a manager. (And if you ever find yourself needing to defend a firing in court, you’ll be in real trouble if the plaintiff’s performance reviews were misleadingly positive.)

6. Not being specific enough.

Managers often write reviews in generalities, both when praising and when offering criticism – for instance, writing, “You’re slow in getting your assignments done” rather than, “You turned the quarterly report in late during two of the four reporting periods.” This is true of praise, too. For instance, rather than saying, “You did a great job with the new inventory system,” it’s more effective to say, “Your revamping of the inventory system has saved the company money, and I’ve heard several people comment about how much easier you’ve made it to find the supplies they need.”

7. Not paying attention to the overall picture.

I’ve seen managers write lukewarm evaluations for employees I know they love and would be devastated to lose, and I’ve seen oddly positive evaluations for employees who need to make major improvements. Make sure to pay attention to the overall message and ensure that the sum of the parts adds up to the correct whole.

8. Focusing on recent history rather than the entire evaluation period.

Resist the temptation to be overly influenced by recent events; the evaluation is (in most cases) for the whole year, not just the past few months. That said, if someone has struggled all year but improved recently, be sure to note that so that the person doesn’t feel her efforts are unnoticed.

9. Not getting feedback from others.

Managers often only see part of an employee’s performance. By seeking feedback in confidence from others who work closely with the person, you may learn things about the employee’s performance, both good and bad, that are useful to know and may inform your assessment.

10. Treating the evaluation process as a one-way street.

The most effective evaluations include a discussion with the employees; they’re not just forms filled out by the manager with no conversation afterwards. You want to talk with the employee: Does her assessment match up with yours? What might she need from you in the coming year? Where should things go from here?

 

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Anony mouse

    funny – had my performance review a few weeks ago for Q3
    #1 in sales by a large margin
    #1 in improved profit
    #1 in workload
    #1 in risk (potential for scary financial nightmares in the millions of
    $)
    Fastest response time to customer requests (hours when the company target is
    days)
    quote to book ratio - book MORE orders than pricing proposals submitted, an
    unheard of metric
     
    Basically, off the charts and hard to measure me amongst my group of almost
    50 peers
     
    Verbally told there are no complaints from a managerial standpoint, nothing
    to complain about and it would take two people to replace me.
     
    Yet, considered to be a mediocre employee when force-ranked as there was ONE
    error of the thousands I transact – an unfair metric as many of my 50 peers do
    not have of these transactions – a $1K mistake on $250M in sales – less than
    .05%, another unheard of metric that would normally be off the charts
     
    Don’t need to wonder why I am not engaged and thrilled to be here – a Fortune
    500 company – but still do the BEST JOB I CAN regardless, have to look in the
    mirror from time to time after all

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Ugh! That sounds demoralizing. This is a good example of how evaluations can really go wrong.

    [Reply]

  • Anony mouse

    funny – had my performance review a few weeks ago for Q3
    #1 in sales by a large margin
    #1 in improved profit
    #1 in workload
    #1 in risk (potential for scary financial nightmares in the millions of
    $)
    Fastest response time to customer requests (hours when the company target is
    days)
    quote to book ratio - book MORE orders than pricing proposals submitted, an
    unheard of metric
     
    Basically, off the charts and hard to measure me amongst my group of almost
    50 peers
     
    Verbally told there are no complaints from a managerial standpoint, nothing
    to complain about and it would take two people to replace me.
     
    Yet, considered to be a mediocre employee when force-ranked as there was ONE
    error of the thousands I transact – an unfair metric as many of my 50 peers do
    not have of these transactions – a $1K mistake on $250M in sales – less than
    .05%, another unheard of metric that would normally be off the charts
     
    Don’t need to wonder why I am not engaged and thrilled to be here – a Fortune
    500 company – but still do the BEST JOB I CAN regardless, have to look in the
    mirror from time to time after all

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    I was just talking with someone yesterday about a “coaching” session that devolved quickly into a complaint session from the boss with issues the employee had no idea were going on. Now the employee is in the position of having to answer questions about duties and trust levels when she had no idea there was even a problem.

    Her boss took a couple of problems that happened months ago, focused solely on them, and backed her into a corner without acknowledging anything else. I feel for her and am trying to help her back up and look at this from another perspective and come up with a reasonable response.

    However, I will say this is one reason I dislike scheduled performance or coaching sessions – it may lead some into thinking they don’t have to give feedback until one of these sessions, and then an employee thinks things are okay and continues to behave in the same way or do a task in the same way, and find out well after the fact it’s not the preferred method. That’s discouraging.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I’ve heard so many managers say, “I’m going to bring it up in the performance evaluation (for the first time).”  No!  We need to take out billboards that say “nothing in a performance evaluation should be a surprise!”

    [Reply]

  • Nervous

    This is great advice but I am wondering how to deal with the opposite situation, having to evaluate your manager? My new company has evaluations go both ways: the manager evaluates the employee in a number of categories (job skills, soft skills, performance) and the employee evaluates the manager on managerial skills and project management skills. The evaluations become a part of the performance review for the manager. In theory, I think this is a good concept and as a manager, I would like to know if my employees had any issues with the way I work or suggestions on how to do things better. But now that the first evaluation round is coming up, I am a bit worried about how to deal with this. From day-to-day interaction, I do not believe my manager is someone who appreciates criticism but I do have issues that I would like to address with her. It goes against my grain to rate something as “positive” when I really see it as “negative” but the evaluation form does not have a “neutral” option… My issue isn’t anything major (yet) but it would become major over time if things continue along the route they have been going. Any thoughts?

    [Reply]

  • Nervous

    This is great advice but I am wondering how to deal with the opposite situation, having to evaluate your manager? My new company has evaluations go both ways: the manager evaluates the employee in a number of categories (job skills, soft skills, performance) and the employee evaluates the manager on managerial skills and project management skills. The evaluations become a part of the performance review for the manager. In theory, I think this is a good concept and as a manager, I would like to know if my employees had any issues with the way I work or suggestions on how to do things better. But now that the first evaluation round is coming up, I am a bit worried about how to deal with this. From day-to-day interaction, I do not believe my manager is someone who appreciates criticism but I do have issues that I would like to address with her. It goes against my grain to rate something as “positive” when I really see it as “negative” but the evaluation form does not have a “neutral” option… My issue isn’t anything major (yet) but it would become major over time if things continue along the route they have been going. Any thoughts?

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Can you find out more about how the info is used? Does it go directly to her with your name on it, or is it filtered by someone else trustworthy who gives her the feedback without names attached? That might help to know.  But if you’ll be delivering it directly to her, I think one key is to make it “safe” for her to hear the feedback — which is something useful to do with anyone, not just your manager — meaning tell her that they’re not huge issues, you’re very happy overall, but feel these things could be great to alter a bit, etc. 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Can you find out more about how the info is used? Does it go directly to her with your name on it, or is it filtered by someone else trustworthy who gives her the feedback without names attached? That might help to know.  But if you’ll be delivering it directly to her, I think one key is to make it “safe” for her to hear the feedback — which is something useful to do with anyone, not just your manager — meaning tell her that they’re not huge issues, you’re very happy overall, but feel these things could be great to alter a bit, etc. 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Can you find out more about how the info is used? Does it go directly to her with your name on it, or is it filtered by someone else trustworthy who gives her the feedback without names attached? That might help to know.  But if you’ll be delivering it directly to her, I think one key is to make it “safe” for her to hear the feedback — which is something useful to do with anyone, not just your manager — meaning tell her that they’re not huge issues, you’re very happy overall, but feel these things could be great to alter a bit, etc. 

    [Reply]

  • NicoleW

    Thanks for sharing this list. I have a cautionary tale for other managers I’d like to share since it illustrates so many of your points.

    Until last year I had always felt vaguely positive about our annual reviews. Mine tended to be at least good and sometimes glowing. There were usually at least a few specific examples and no big surprises. Then this past year, my managers committed 5 of your 10 things to avoid. Very frustrating for me since I had recently received an increased workload (half my dept laid off) and a salary cut (entire company “austerity” plan).

    #3 – Procrastinating – my review was supposed to be done by early January, it was done in April. And it was clear there wasn’t a lot of time spent writing it.
    #4 – Results – Despite all of my projects being successful, the majority of the review was dedicated to discussing the issues with “how.” The VP wants lots of informal progress reports rather than just letting me complete the tasks on my list. And one of the other departments I work with complained that I tell them how to do their job. Ugh. Part of my job is relaying the VP’s or the director’s notes to other departments. I always start the emails by saying, “I’m passing on Director’s request…” I haven’t changed the way I do this in the number of years I’ve been at this job, so maybe other depts are more crabby? No examples of what I’m doing wrong, so…
    #6 – Specifics – See above. Without understanding if there is a pattern of problems or examples, it’s pretty hard to make changes.
    #7 – Overall picture – While I’m a sensitive person, I have almost never cried due to something work related. This review, I totally lost it (once I got home that night). I scheduled a time to meet again with my manager, and she was baffled that I was upset. She said I was great at my job and that I was juggling our department’s biggest projects successfully, the review just singled out a few things to improve. I pointed out that all of the written comments were negative, which she hadn’t realized.
    #8 – Recent History – since my review was done in April, more than half of the negative comments were from Feb/March (which were the first two months after half my department was let go). Obviously there were things to work on, but this review was reflecting this recent workplace upheaval, not my performance for all of 2010.

    I thought I was over this, but I guess I am still bitter and wanting to vent about it!

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    #7 can be especially demoralizing — it’s one of those things that the employee will see immediately but the manager can sometimes miss. It’s baffling.

    [Reply]

  • Joe

    One thing I’d throw out here as a mistake I’ve made in the past (and have gotten somewhat better at, but still need to improve more): Don’t wait until performance evaluation time to start thinking about specifics to put in a performance evaluation.  The best piece of advice I ever got from a fellow manager was to keep a file on each person I manage, and make notes throughout the year so that when it came time to do performance reviews, I wouldn’t be going off of memory, I’d have a lot of specifics written down.  This ties in closely with your #8, because you want to make sure you’re giving a fair review of the whole period, not just what you remember most clearly.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Yes!  I started doing this a few years ago and it’s hugely helpful.

    [Reply]

  • Joe

    One thing I’d throw out here as a mistake I’ve made in the past (and have gotten somewhat better at, but still need to improve more): Don’t wait until performance evaluation time to start thinking about specifics to put in a performance evaluation.  The best piece of advice I ever got from a fellow manager was to keep a file on each person I manage, and make notes throughout the year so that when it came time to do performance reviews, I wouldn’t be going off of memory, I’d have a lot of specifics written down.  This ties in closely with your #8, because you want to make sure you’re giving a fair review of the whole period, not just what you remember most clearly.

    [Reply]

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  • A Nonna Miss

    With regards to #4, can’t you focus too much on results?  I have a direct report who gets all of her work done quickly and well, but colleagues in other departments consistently say “I’m glad I don’t have to work with her anymore”. 

    She’s at the level where she’s supposed to be interacting directly with clients, but if she’s alienating to colleagues, I worry about her people skills in general, and end up managing her client-interaction far more than I’d like to.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    One thing you need to consider in addition to *what* people get done is *how* they get it done. Are they displaying the behaviors and values that you want from employees, which probably include things like “fostering a positive environment” and “being pleasant to work with” and “building relationships with others”? If not, it’s absolutely legitimate to address that as a performance issue.

    [Reply]

  • bogari

    What happens when your the employee and are unhappy? I had to ask my current supervisor for a review I’m hoping that they get the hint. But I’m also getting ready to walk.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Hmmm, I definitely wouldn’t expect your boss to pick up on the fact that you intend that to be a hint that you’re unhappy! But in any case, if you think the things that are making you unhappy are things that can be resolved and you have a pretty good relationship with your boss, talk to her about what’s making you unhappy and see if there’s a way to rectify things. Keep in mind, though, that if it’s something fundamental about the work or the culture, that might not be something that can be changed.

    [Reply]

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