Mastering the Language of Effective Performance Evaluations

Employer Articles / July 3, 2008

Day in and day out, you tend carefully to your employees. You keep a close watch on their performance, lavish praise on their achievements, take note of their shortcomings, and counsel them through the challenges they face. Like most personnel managers, you take your job seriously and do your utmost to help staff members make good on their potential.

But in spite all of your efforts on the front lines of personnel management, when the time comes to conduct your annual performance reviews, you often find yourself at a loss for words. Somehow, the task of translating all that you’ve observed over the last twelve months onto a few sheets of paper just seems impossible. You probably face the prospect of filling out your performance reviews with a sense of dread in the pit of your stomach, or perhaps your reluctance manifests itself as procrastination, as you put off doing your reviews until the very last minute yet again.

Getting Rid of Writer’s Block

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. According to Richard Grote, management consultant and author of The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book: A Survival Guide for Managers, the vast majority of managers he has spoken to in his research and private practice express discomfort with the performance review process.

Surprisingly, Grote pinpoints lack of training as the possible culprit behind this widespread phenomenon. Despite the fact that virtually every business organization uses some type of formal review process, very few personnel managers are trained to conduct reviews effectively.

The good news? With just a few simple tweaks and refinements, you can vastly improve the quality of your performance reviews – and realize significant gains in team performance in the process. Here are some basic writing tips to help you vanquish “performance review dread” for good.

Opt for objective, measurement-oriented language

 A common problem that plagues performance reviews is the overuse of vague, generic terms such as “good” and “excellent.” Although these phrases are positive, they’re too open-ended to be useful as constructive feedback. To be more helpful, try to use words that offer up specific, measurable assessments of each employee’s on-the-job successes and failures. Action words such as excels, exhibits, demonstrates, grasps, generates, manages, possesses, communicates, monitors, directs, and achieves are great ways to translate an employee’s performance onto paper.

Stick to the facts

Whenever possible, try to back up your assessments with at least one or two specific examples of the behaviors you’re describing. That way, you can link the abstract language of the evaluation to specific incidents that the employee will probably remember – and in so doing, really drive home your point in the process. You’ll make this step easier by taking the time to jot down examples of specific employee performance issues over the course of the year.

Choose words that focus on performance, not personality

Remember, you’re supposed to be evaluating each employee’s ability to carry out their on-the-job duties – not whether you’d want to invite them over to your house for a dinner party. Personality clashes are sometimes inevitable, and as long as the worker is performing adequately, you have to be able to set your personal feelings aside and evaluate them objectively. If you’re assessing an employee whose personality rubs you the wrong way, take extra care to ensure that your word choices are focused on performance. One exception to this rule: if an employee’s attitude is impacting his or her performance, then it is fair game – but still make an extra effort to describe the problem in professional, rather than personal or emotional, terms.

Take each review through multiple drafts

Most personnel managers are constantly on the go. Finding the time to sit down and write out your employee reviews can be a major challenge. But if you rush through the process and just jot down the first impression that pops into your head, you’ll be shortchanging the employee and squandering a valuable opportunity to foster their professional development. That’s why evaluation experts recommend completing written reviews in a two-step process. First, write a rough draft that hits all of the major points you want to convey. Then, stick it in a desk drawer. When you revisit the review a few days later, you can polish the language and fill in any details you might have left out the first time around.

Writing employee performance reviews might never rank among your favorite responsibilities, but with just a few simple improvements, you can drastically improve the quality of your assessments – and super-charge your team’s performance in the process.