how managers mess up 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 only 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?

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    You missed a few:

    1. Not understanding what it means to be great. Just knocking out the basic job functions doesn’t qualify as great. Believe me, everyone knows who the real rock stars are.

    2. Just going through the motions. If employees can tell you’re not taking their evaluation seriously they’ll assume you’re incompetent.

    3. Giving better evaluations to employees just because you want them to get a good raise.

    4. Cutting and pasting last years evaluation into the current one word for word. The status quo should never be the expectation.

    5. Letting your budget dictate the evaluations. Don’t give better evaluations just because you have a big budget and vice versa.

  2. DJO*

    Sorry to comment here instead of on the article itself but IT has blocked the comments section on that site, for some reason…

    Worth noting (either as a fourth bullet on #1 or a standalone #11), if you want your employees to have a shot at promotion opportunities in the future, write their performance reviews accordingly. Don’t sell them short in the comments. If you’re rating them with 4s on a 1-5 scale, put some detail into why they’re worth a 4. To be clear, if they’re not meeting or exceeding expectations, they shouldn’t have a high rating to start with.

  3. ChristineH*

    I had #2 (waiting till evaluation to give feedback) happen to me one year at a previous job. It was really humiliating because some of it entailed calling attention to certain personal habits that were brought to his attention several months prior.

    I love #6 (giving specifics) – Not only is it effective in assessing job performance, it gives the employee some talking points should he/she apply for promotion within the company or for future outside opportunities.

  4. Mike C.*

    I have a similar issue otherwise I’d comment there as well.

    Anyway, the thing I see killing the large local tech firms is the fact that the “Average” or higher ratings have a hard cap. Combine that with managers that keep moving around and they don’t want to hand them out to employees they hardly know. That leads to hard working employees who get moved around all the time and are forced out even after doing great work. It must cost them a fortune!

    The other thing I see with my firm is that expectations are laid out at the beginning of the year, and built into those expectations is a rubric which determines what sorts of achievements will merit which sorts of ratings you’ll receive. If you do your job well you’ll end up with an “Average” rating, which leads to modest raises and the like. To get above that you have to really bust your buns, but at least you know exactly how to do it. And if you’re “just doing your job well”, that’s great too.

    1. Joey*

      Mike, most companies try to evaluate on a curve. And most managers have a hard time understanding how the performance of their employees relates to other employees. Most managers want to reward their top performers with the highest rating, but relative to employees in other areas that rating might not be so accurate. So there’s usually some caps on the higher ratings so managers aren’t too generous.

      Nice though that your company spells out how to get merit increases. That’s not too common.

      1. anonymous*

        In my company, my manager has 15 people. The company grades on a curve (it’s all departments, not just mine; it’s a Fortune 500 company and this is standard across the board). 2 employees HAVE to be listed as “exemplary”. 2 employees HAVE to be listed as “inadequate”. The rest are “meets status”. No exceptions. If every single one of your employees meets their objectives, and goes above and beyond (and we all do; we’re the central security hub for almost all applications), then no matter how hard a person works, two will still be considered “inadequate”. So it often boils down to the manager rotating the employees around in their evaluations, so that someone who was exemplary last year is now inadequate this year. It’s extremely demoralizing, and people are not just basically saying, “eff this, why should I bother?”.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard. It would also mean the manager herself was inadequate, if she had two inadequate performers who she wasn’t doing anything about.

          1. anonymous*

            It’s a corporate policy. At least, it is for our subsidiary, if not for the larger company as a whole. All of us have been asked at one point or another to “step up”, often helping other teams in their objectives, as well as meeting…and bypassing…our own, and every one of us has done so. Yet our manager has to figure which of his 15 employees are considered “inadequate”. Even if we are technically “meets status”, we may not receive a good evaluation because, well, the company says two of us has to have a bad one.

            I’m not sure I’m explaining this well…we have an outstanding record for customer service. We were responsible for bringing in at least half the applications and mid-range servers for security administration. Every last one of us is involved in several major projects plus daily work. Yet two of us are considered “inadequate”, simply because corporate policy evaluates based on the bell curve. Two are great, two are bad, everyone else is average. It’s beyond frustrating.

        2. Mike C.*

          At the work places I know where this happens, competitors email invitations for resumes to the work addresses after reviews come out.

          Just think for a moment how effective that is if you busted your buns all year long and got the unlucky “inadequate”.

          Why do so many employers install revolving doors at the entrances of their businesses? They aren’t saving money this way…

      2. Mike C.*

        I understand what most companies do, but they’re doing it wrong. Doing a curve alone without taking an inventory of the positions and listing expectations for those positions is a recipe for high turnover. Additionally the company keeps track of low/average/high wages for a given job title/experience/etc so that if someone falls way out on either end a manager must justify the reasoning with higher ups. This further ensures that employees are treated fairly across vastly different departments.

        If it can be done for a large company it can be done for smaller ones as well. The averages thing may be more difficult with fewer data points, but the listed expectations should be trivial. For a company to do otherwise is frankly very lazy. If I’m a manager I want my employees to know not only what is expected of them, but what they can get if they want to go beyond.

  5. Lee*

    I’d like some advice!

    I just got my performance review today, and I did really well; however, my boss wrote only a few short, general things, e.g.: Lee continues to perform strongly and has developed interests in x, y and z”

    I am being considered for a title change (promotion!) early next year and wonder if this will hold me back. Can I ask my boss to re-do the form, or add more specific feedback? (We have until January 31st to add comments to our reviews before they are submitted to HR). It’s also rife with spelling/grammar errors which irks me…but not in my place to ask for them to be corrected…right?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Whether or not you even need to consider this depends on how your workplaces uses reviews and handles promotions. Do they consult the formal review when making a decision on your promotion? A lot of places don’t; they just ask your manager for her overall take on you (orally, not the written form). So you need to know how that works.

      If the form WILL matter, and your boss knows you’re up for a promotion, you could say, “Thanks so much for this great review. Since it’ll be part of the decision in whether I’m promoted, I wonder if you could add X and Y to help with that?”

      And no, let the grammatical errors go!

  6. Anonymous*

    Have you ever heard of a self-evaluation on a point scale in which the higher ups say you cannot give yourself anything higher than the median number? That’s for my boss, not me. Aren’t companies seeking out the best from the pool of applicants when they are interviewing? Then for God’s sake why tell them they are not great employees and cannot evaluate themselves at “exceeding expectations” or “going above and beyond?”

  7. Cassie*

    Our performance evaluation short form consists of a short form – assigning a score of 1 to 4 in categories such as oral communication, reliability and customer focus. And then the 2nd page is for supervisor comments. I’ve gotten some pretty short comments – one boss simply wrote “deserves a raise”. Which is nice and all, but to get some kind of raise, your boss has to submit a request. And explain why you deserve a raise. A fragmented sentence in your evaluation is not going to cut it!

    I feel that the people in my dept gloss over evaluations and particularly fall victim to # 5 & #6. I don’t know if they feel like being specific is being mean or what. Also, I think supervisors tend to shy away from criticism – it isn’t unusual for a problem employee to get 4s (highest score) in all categories even when there are definite deficiencies. Of course, my main boss gave me a 3 in customer focus (4s in everything else) because he didn’t know what it meant! :p

  8. Natasha*

    I once had a really awful performance review by a manager who hated me. She had to make me as doing really well since my work was the best in the department but she deliberately marked me as low as possible in the Other category. Her reason: I wasn’t best friends with everyone in the department. Never mind I had nothing in common with them and was just polite. She did it to keep my raise as low as possible and even told some of the supervisors that was the case.

  9. candid*

    I am in the same situation where I am discriminated against because I am not a part of the pack. I did the best I could at my job and made the best attempts to try to change the situation. I was told I needed retraining on notating accounts and put y down in my reviews for it but am being pushed aside and not getting help. And on my last review was told I am going to lose my job because of this. Not to mention she has shared personal medical information about me with her cohorts….I lose sleep everynoght because of this. Help!!!

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