HR Diplomacy 101: How to Break Bad News in an Employee Performance Evaluation
If most personnel managers could have it their way, every employee performance evaluation would be chock-full of “excellents” and “outstandings,” five-star ratings, and glowing feedback. Unfortunately, in the real world, it doesn’t always work out like that.
The law of averages dictates that most of the workers you evaluate will fall somewhere in the middle of the performance spectrum, demonstrating a mixed bag of successes and failures, achievements and challenges. Inevitably, though, a few outliers will fall below the curve. In those cases, it falls to you to deliver what no personnel manager likes to think about: a negative performance evaluation.
Making Negative Feedback an Opportunity for Positive Change
Let’s face it -- no one really relishes being the bearer of bad news. When we’ve been brought up to gloss over shortcomings in social situations by resorting to well-meaning white lies and exaggerated praise, it can feel very uncomfortable to bluntly confront an employee whose performance has been lacking.
But for personnel managers, the task of doling out unpleasant truths is just part of the terrain. HR consultant Judith Lindenberger suggests trying to look at the process in a different light to ease the discomfort of the situation: even though the performance evaluation itself isn’t positive, you can frame it as a genuine opportunity to support the employee and help them get their career back on the right track. Here are a few more useful guidelines to follow the next time you’re forced to deliver some not-so-great news.
A negative performance review shouldn’t come as a shock.
Performance review experts are in universal agreement on this point: if a negative review comes as a complete surprise to the employee, there needs to be more ongoing feedback and informal evaluation throughout the rest of the year. Even if you haven’t formally sat down with the employee before now, he or she should definitely already have a strong sense that the review will contain some bad news.
Plan ahead for different employee responses.
During your pre-meeting preparation, spend a few minutes gaming out the ways you might handle different reactions. Based on your knowledge of the employee’s personality, do you think they’ll be defensive, silent, angry, or apologetic? Ready yourself with responses for each possible outcome. If you think there’s even a remote possibility that the employee could respond with aggression, you’ll need to address the security issue well in advance of your sit-down.
Focus on specific incidents.
Research has shown that many employees who receive negative performance reviews come away from the experience feeling personally attacked. If an employee retreats into defensiveness, it’s far less likely that you’ll be able to help them make positive changes in their future performance. Back up your constructive criticism with incidents that illustrate the employee’s on-the-job shortcomings and challenges. That way, the employee will be more likely to grasp that you’re critiquing their past performance, not their inherent worth as a person.
Listen with empathy and sensitivity.
A performance review shouldn’t be a one-way street. While you’re offering feedback, make sure you stop throughout the discussion to ask the employee whether he or she understands everything that’s being said. After you’ve laid out your evaluation, let the employee have their turn, offering their own take on their performance issues. During the discussion, show that you respect their input and opinion by adopting a stance of engaged listening, genuine openness, and understanding concern. Let them know that you’re committed to working together to get past the current issues.
Develop an action plan for remediation.
At the end of the review, focus on three or four main areas that you’d like to target for improvement. For each area of improvement, list three specific actions that the employee can take to boost their performance. Encourage the employee to name several actions or behaviors that they can take to improve in these areas, as well. By ending on a positive note, you can underscore the fact that you value the employee and you have faith in their willingness and ability to turn things around.
No one likes delivering bad news, but “bad news” is in the eye of the beholder. If you can frame a negative evaluation as an opportunity for positive change, both the employee and the organization will ultimately benefit.