don’t say these four things in a performance review

If you’re a manager who’s gearing up for year-end performance reviews (and perhaps dreading them), you’re probably thinking a lot about what to say. But what not to say is just as important. Here are four common traps to avoid.

1. Don’t say “I haven’t had much time to prepare for this.” Managers notoriously dread writing performance reviews and tend to put them off. But if you think about it, that sends a pretty terrible message to employees. This is the one time of the year when you’re both charged with stepping back and reflecting on how things are going, and when you’re supposed to deliver a formal message about how you see the person’s performance and the path ahead. If you don’t prepare – and if you announce you didn’t prepare – you’re signaling you don’t value the employee, the contributions, or their future with your company. For obvious reasons, don’t do that.

2. Don’t compare the person to other employees. Talk about how the employee’s performance measures against the expectations for the role – their goals, how they measured up to those goals, and how well they align with the values that your company wants to see people displaying. That’s what you want your employees measuring themselves against, not each other. If people feel like they’re competing with each other, you can destroy camaraderie and cooperation and spread seeds of resentment.

3. Don’t focus on personality over results. Comments like “you have a bad attitude” or “you need to be less shy” are about personality. Instead, talk in specifics about how those traits manifest – the specifics that are relevant to work. For example, instead of “bad attitude,” you might talk about how the person has snapped at colleagues and rolled her eyes in meetings. And for “shy,” you might talk about how you’d like to see the person contribute more at meetings and build stronger relationships with clients. Not only does that keep the focus on relevant behaviors, but it also gives the person clear feedback that they can act on.

4. Don’t use gender-biased language.Research shows that high-performing women are far more likely than their male colleagues to be called “abrasive” in their performance reviews. In fact, when one study compared evaluations of high-performing men and women, most of the criticism men received was “heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop,” while women were frequently told to speak up less, be less abrasive, and not be as assertive. So when you’re writing performance evaluations for women, and especially if you’re about to give a woman feedback around these elements, be careful to think about whether a man doing the same thing would trigger the same feedback.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 164 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly L.*


    My peeves, from assorted reviews, are a combination of 3 and 4, along with “By the way, you did this thing that annoyed me eight months ago. I didn’t tell you then, but now I’m going to ding you for it.” But yeah, 3 and 4, and they have often seemed to go together. “You don’t seem authoritative” and “You don’t seem friendly” that both turned out to be based on the timbre of my voice (and yes, kind of mutually exclusive, because women sometimes can’t win either way).

    1. brighidg*

      “You don’t seem friendly” that both turned out to be based on the timbre of my voice (and yes, kind of mutually exclusive, because women sometimes can’t win either way).”

      This is why I’m not a fan of 3, period. Unless it’s actual customers saying this about someone in a customer-facing role, it just seems way too vague and many times can be racially-motivated or gendered (or both). If someone acts inappropriately they should be spoken to right then otherwise, yeah, like you said, it seems to be used just to ding people.

      (And at my former place of employment, an excuse to deny people raises. Of course you could still act “poorly” and get raises if they were afraid you were going to walk and you were a top performer. As I and several other colleagues learned by being in each position over the years.)

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yeah. Too often, it seems to be based on trying to read people’s minds to see if they’re really truly happy about mopping, and it ends up in that emotional-labor thing we’ve been talking about lately.

        1. brighidg*

          Yes. And honestly, some people are better just left alone. No, they’re not happy being in the assembly line at the Teapot factory making minimum wage but they’re willing to be polite, show up on time, and do their work because they know how to be a responsible adult. Let ’em be.

          1. Jennifer*

            It’s like, you want me to be a happy robot, so why are you complaining that I’m not a GENUINELY HAPPY robot? I’m putting on the damn smile, dammit!

      2. simonthegrey*

        My husband has had this from the other side. He is in a field that is predominantly female. Because he is a big guy with a neutral face that can appear unhappy or upset, he is constantly told he isn’t peppy enough, friendly enough, upbeat, positive, etc. He is very efficient and prompt, skilled at what he does and has a passion for it, but because he doesn’t have what his bosses think are the “feminine” qualities for the job, he gets dinged for that. Unfortunately he is also a little on the spectrum and so he doesn’t see a reason to fake those qualities when his work is superior.

    2. Ad Astra*

      Surprises in annual reviews are the worst. I once had an experience like the one you describe where, because of the time of year I signed on with the company, my first review was 18 months into the job — and I was hearing about things I did wrong more than a year ago. Actually, my most recent review was the first time I’d ever had a performance review with no big surprises, and it was so much less stressful.

    3. Nother Name*

      Even better, “You did this thing several months ago that I told you to do because no one else wanted to do it and we all knew it would be unpopular, but you were new, so we decided to make you do it. And now people don’t like you. And it’s your fault.” Also, don’t blame one employee for another employee’s poor attendance when you hired the second knowing they had poor attendance (internal hire).

      1. Kelly L.*

        I had one where they dinged me for The Thing in, say, 2007, and I duly apologized, and then I went in for my 2008 review, and they had photocopied my 2007 review. The manager acknowledged that the Thing was just on there from last year, and that I hadn’t done the Thing anytime recently, but since it was there, she had to mention it and remind me not to do the Thing. It’s Office-Space-level humor in retrospect.

          1. Kelly L.*

            I think even the manager talking to me knew it was silly. I think it had been some other manager who had decided to just recycle the old review. That was…an odd place.

        1. Angela*

          ugh – reminds me of a former manager that once you had messed up something you were forever going to mess up that something. No matter that you messed it up within the first couple of months and were now a top performer with tenure. I’m sure she was convinced that the only reason I hadn’t messed up the something again was because I was reminded constantly not to mess it up.

          1. alter_ego*

            This gets to me. When I first got hired at my job (3.5 years ago!) I had trouble remembering to rotate some pdf’s that would automatically generate sideways before emailing them out. My boss made a point to tell me it was really important that I do it, I made a conscious effort to remember, and it hasn’t been a problem since. A few weeks ago, I was crazy busy, and, of course, I forgot to rotate the PDF before sending it out, for the first time in 3 years. I immediately got back an email from the PM it had been sent to, reminding me that he “knew this was a problem I have” and that I would “really need to get better about it”. Apparently 3 years of no mistakes still isn’t enough to erase the first few months of mistakes.

            1. Nother Name*

              I always console myself in these cases thinking that I might report to these people, but at least I’m not married to them. Can you imagine having a spouse like this?

              1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

                Oh, goodness, yes! I have had a number of male and female bosses and coworkers for whom I have had this exact thought when the unreasonable barking begins: “It could be worse; I could be this person’s spouse or kid.”

            2. Not So NewReader*

              These people have nothing to do but sit in watch to see when the mistake is made again. Ten years? Not a problem they will sit in wait for this occurrence all the while collecting the paycheck for the work they should be doing.

            3. Jennifer*

              In my experience, once you fuck up once, you’re always a fuckup at that.

              Like my old boss who would never, ever let it go that one time when I answered the phone, I wasn’t cheerful. Even after I told her I’d just been dumped by my boyfriend (which was kinda none of her business) and that was why I wasn’t happy. Never, ever got over it.

    4. Biff*

      Several people I know have gotten the “let’s discuss this event from 6+ months ago that wasn’t even a blip on your radar’ in the last few years, and all of us have opined that it seems like it gets dug up as a way to have some sort of justification to deny a raise or COLA.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I also got the “Here is a thing you did within the first three months at this job, and even though we didn’t bring it up at the time, it’s a perfect example of what is wrong with you as both an employee and a person.” In one review, I was dinged for calling my direct manager when my first video assignment didn’t match the way the event was billed and I wanted to know what footage she’d prefer in place of what we planned. Apparently, calling for clarification is a sign that I’m not self-directed.

      2. Jeanne*

        Yes. In some companies, raises are determined first. Then the review has to match the raise. So things that were petty and ignored 10 months ago are now reasons to deny a raise.

    5. anonanonanon*

      I’ve gotten “you don’t seem friendly” in response to my resting angry face and also because I apparently “walk like I’m angry” (i.e., I stride and don’t slouch and walk quickly). It’s such a petty thing to call out in a review, especially if it doesn’t affect your job performance.

      1. Kelly L.*

        In my case, it was mostly because of a loud environment in which I was struggling to be literally heard by customers. I can sound pretty at a normal volume if I really think about it, but if I’m having to raise my voice, it’s going to start sounding kind of rough, especially after several hours of it. Whoops.

      2. Maxwell Edison*

        I got something similar back when I was at ToxicJob. Apparently I tilt my head when I’m walking around (manager couldn’t explain why this was bad, just that it was bad and “people have noticed it”), and also I don’t make eye contact when I’m walking around (I tried to explain that this was because I was heading to the printer or to the bathroom and not planning to engage people in interaction, but this got me labeled as “defensive”). I took to pretending I was balancing a book on my head whenever I had to walk anywhere; I also pretended I’d had a glass of wine when I was in meetings so I had a vague half-smile on my face (manager really liked this; doubt she’d have liked it if I told her I was pretending I was buzzed).

        I have a friend who got dinged in a review for being “too tall” (she always wears flats, so it wasn’t because of heels).

        1. SaraV*

          I have a friend who got dinged in a review for being “too tall” (she always wears flats, so it wasn’t because of heels).

          As a member of the “too tall” club…


          So sorry I can’t lop three inches off my legs.

        2. anonanonanon*

          Ohhh, that’s reminding me of the time I was told that I make “too much eye contact”. Growing up, I was always told that it was polite to look someone in the eye when you’re speaking with them, but apparently that particular manager/coworker found it “too aggressive”. (And sometimes I wonder if I would have ever gotten these specific comments if I was a man)

          Dinged for being too tall, though? That’s absolutely ridiculous. How on earth is someone supposed to rectify that???

  2. Noddy*

    I once had a job where the VP announced in a departmental meeting how much she loathed the performance review process and how much she considered it a burden and a waste of time. I was a new employee, about a few months into my new job at that time. I remember being shocked and aghast that perhaps I made a major mistake in taking on this job. I was right. It was one of the worst jobs I have ever had — a terrible fit and an organizational culture rife with drama and toxic politics.

    I do good work and give a lot of myself to a job. In return, I expect management and leadership to hold their end of the deal which is to treat me fairly, reward good work, and to take seriously the process by which employees will be evaluated. When the leader of a department announces publicly that she considers doing her job of evaluating employees a pain and a burden, my respect for him or her diminishes and my expectation that I will be treated fairly in the evaluation process will be cast in doubt.

    1. OriginalYup*

      Agreed. I can totally understand where a manager doesn’t love the all the paperwork and associated stuff that goes along with performance reviews, especially if the process is laborious or the company does forced rankings. But to go into it with a hatred for the whole thing? Geez. I don’t get a choice about *being* reviewed, so it’d be nice if the person doing the viewing showed up with a decent attitude about something that’s pretty important to my work life.

      But it’s a useful indicator, as you point out. The managers I’ve had who took the time to do good, constructive reviews — even inside a crappy bureaucratic system — were usually the good bosses anyway. The ones who portrayed it as a massive inconvenience to themselves were typically lousy managers anyway.

    2. simonthegrey*

      My dad was a manager. He hated reviews. He would complain at home about them just like I complain now about having too many papers to grade (and who’s fault is that, person-who-assigns-the-papers?). He would go on and on about the stress. But he only ever complained to us at home. He NEVER made it the issue of the person to whom he gave the review. And my dad would spend hours on reviews at home. He had a 10 person team at one point in time and working evenings on the review, it took him a month to get through them.

  3. BBBizAnalyst*

    My current manager always compares the majority of our team to a few peers. For context, we are a group of 12 spread out all over the US. I have 3 peers who happen to be in the same office as my manager. She always makes references to these 3 peers as being top notch and the standard for which she makes her judgments. She has even gone as far as saying that it’s more convenient for her to staff these 3 peers on special projects because they sit in front of her office. It’s infuriating and what she doesn’t realize is the stark majority of us are looking for new opportunities because she does not know how to manage remotely. It’s completely demoralized those of us who sit in other regions/time zones so we don’t feel part of a team. We just work here.

    1. Argh!*

      My peers are on-site but I never see them so I have a similar problem. I get compared to the work products of people I rarely see and I have no idea what they do or how they do it. Even worse, we all have really different types of jobs so even though we’re peers, comparing us is apples & oranges.

      1. BBBizAnalyst*

        Yep! What’s terrible about my manager is that we all handle different coverage sectors of our business so we’re dealing with varying personalities, work styles and quite frankly, various needs. Her one size fits all method is awful and has had a negative impact on our team culture. We’ve had 4 people leave in the last few months and she can’t seem to figure out why…

        The good news is that I was just invited to a final round of interviews for a company that I think would be a great fit with the team/manager being entirely on site…. Crossing my fingers I’m out of my current company very soon…

  4. Not Karen*

    Please tell my previous manager #3. He once told me I looked “grumpy” in meetings as a review point and I was like so…???? It had zippo effect on my work, so what’s the problem…?

    For the record, if you don’t want me to be grumpy in a meeting, don’t require me to attend a 2hr meeting at 8am when I don’t actually need to be there.

    1. brighidg*

      And again, I kinda gotta wonder if you had been a Not Kevin – would your expression have been such a big deal to him?

      It reminds me of a former colleague of mine – she was an older black woman who was very soft spoken and always polite and professional. I cannot count the number of times she would get harped on by the direct manager for her attitude – wtf?! All because she didn’t want to joke around with the managers Michael Scott-like behavior, she just wanted to be left alone to do her work. And she wasn’t rude about it – she would smile, fake a laugh, go back to work but she had a “bad attitude” and wasn’t a team-player. Nonsense.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ugh, this is a very common thing that black women face. Just as women are often labeled abrasive or too aggressive when the same behavior in men is seen as assertive or “strong leadership,” there’s research showing that black women are more likely to be perceived as having a “bad attitude,” while white people get a pass for the same behavior.

  5. Nethwen*

    Perfect timing! Next week, I have to give year-end evaluations for the first time. I have plenty of experience receiving useless ones, so I feel solid on what not to do, but this article is helping me focus my thoughts on how to achieve what I want to do.

    I’m struggling with the more subjective parts like “when you talk to customers, you sound irritated; I need you to sound collaborative.” How am I or the staff person to judge when this behavior has occurred, other than whatever I feel like when I observe the staff person in future customer interactions? That kind of performance evaluation isn’t objective or fair.

    1. TL -*

      Can you try something like “Your customer feedback is often that you sound irritated – I know that sometimes you forgo pleasantries (Saying, “Hi! How can I help you?” instead of just “What?”) and that you have a tendency to look very serious and distracted.”

      Do you know why they’re coming off as irritated? I think a customer service role is one role where smiling and acting friendly according to cultural norms is actually kinda important, so I would coach them on that. (But make it clear it’s only for interacting with customers when you need this exaggerated version of pleasant and happy.)

      1. Ama*

        Yeah, as someone who once got “people say you don’t seem like you want to help them” and then had the person offering that feedback refuse to give any specific details that might have helped me identify what, exactly, I could do to change that impression, *any* specifics you can offer the person will be helpful.

        I suspect in my case it was the “tendency to look serious and distracted” that TL mentions (because trying to be more alert and conversational to people at my desk seemed to fix the problem) but because my supervisor wouldn’t give me even that much, I ended up being paranoid for weeks that I hadn’t guessed correctly and was about to get another complaint.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “When I observe your customer interactions, I’ve noticed that you sometimes sound frustrated and less collaborative than I’d like you to. Reflecting on this, I think it’s about tone of voice and the language you choose; for example, when X happened and you said Y, or (second example), which can make customers feel ___.”

      1. Nethwen*

        “it’s about the tone of voice”

        This is where I get stuck. How do you objectively give someone something concrete to change about their tone of voice? I don’t care what the person is thinking and the word choice is fine; I just need the voice tone to be more pleasant. The best I can come up with right now is: “Use your customer interactions in situation X as a model. In situation X, you sound like you’re interested in listening to the person and want to help them. That’s the same kind of voice tone and personal interest I need to hear in situation Y.” But again, how are either of us going to feel confident that I’m evaluating the staff person fairly on something as subjective as “tone of voice”?

        I’ll keep evaluating what I truly need and what behaviors are less important and pin down something concrete before I say anything. Thanks for the ideas, everyone.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You don’t need to prove that you’re being perfectly subjective. It’s okay to say “here’s how I’m hearing it and how I think it’s coming across the clients.” You’re presumably in your position in part to exercise judgment on this kind of thing, and it’s okay to do that. Obviously, you want to give examples and help the person understand what you’re hearing and why, but there may be some subjectivity built into that, and you may not be able to 100% eliminate it … and you really don’t need to.

          It’s like assessing writing — you can point to language and flow, but ultimately you get to make a call on whether someone’s writing is what you need in a position, and coach them on changing it if it isn’t. Same thing here.

    3. Argh!*

      I would start with a positive suggestion rather than a negative one (Do this rather than Don’t do that). “I think you could develop a more outgoing persona when dealing with customers to put them at ease.” Then if the person doesn’t get the hint or wants details, add “Sometimes you seem a little impatient or rushed. They need to feel like they’re the center of the universe and aren’t a burden to you.” You could also ask if they feel overburdened and get into a discussion of job duties or time management depending on the cause of the moodiness.

  6. manybellsdown*

    I had a job where we wrote our OWN performance reviews, based on a template. And then our boss would write one as well and we’d go over where it matched up and where it didn’t. It was really difficult; if you said you were awesome at everything you’d be expected to justify it, and if you said “oh I’m terrible” out of some false modesty you’d be expected to explain how you planned to improve.

    It was awful the first time, but then I really got to like it. It was great for making sure we were both on the same page. Because we literally were (using the same template!)

    1. brighidg*

      I’m sure you know this but to anyone who doesn’t and is reading this now: Never do the I’m terrible. I made that mistake before and never-again. Make them justify your terribleness.

      1. manybellsdown*

        I think sometimes that happened because it was a mostly-female industry, and so many of us learn early on that proudly stating we’re really good at something is often not seen as positive for women. So we’d deprecatingly put “Oh, gosh, I’m just so bad at X!”

        And then my boss would say “Hm, I see you say you’re not good with X. What specifically are your failings in that area and how do you plan to improve them?” So that would totally bite you in the butt if you were fishing for reassurance that you were actually not bad at the thing.

      2. Jaydee*

        I think the one exception to that is if you really *are* terrible at X (or at least if you know X is a weakness or an area where you need improvement). Certainly you don’t want to exaggerate any more than you want to fish for compliments. But you do want to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise you run the risk of not only being bad at X but of your boss thinking you’re oblivious or you just don’t care about X. And that can be worse than acknowledging you’re not good at X and outlining some steps for improvement.

    2. BabyAttorney*

      Mmmm my new company does this. I’m terribly nervous, it was my first time writing my own goals and I really underestimated how LONG takes to do anything with anyone else involved….or having to justify spending time on work on the non immediate but still important things that were in my goals. So I’m rather nervous that will negatively affect my review. Our goals have to be connected to something concrete, so it was like “will accomplish X by Y date.”

    3. The Other Dawn*

      My new company uses this format and I really like it. It forces me to really keep track of all the great things I’m doing and think about where I might improve. It’s not just my manager telling me what needs to improve; I have some ownership in the process.

    4. Liza*

      My company started doing this last year! I found it difficult to write my own, but I ended up a fan of the process. (The fact that my boss wrote me the best performance review I’ve had in my life didn’t hurt, of course.)

      I made heavy use of my “Yays” email folder, where I keep copies of emails from happy clients, to remind me about the awesome things I had done during the year so I could be very specific in my self review.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Nope. I have only worked one place that did. And it was the same thing every time. It was not. good.
        Let’s say you are an accountant. The questions went like this “Does accounting work” and you were supposed to rate on a scale of 1 to 5. Gee, I’m accountant sooo must be I do accounting work? wth
        “Works with numbers”. Hmm. Another toughie, on a scale of 1 to 5. I am an accountant so I do work with numbers, yep that is true. Don’t put 5, not if you want your meeting to end before next Tuesday.

      2. Windchime*

        It is where I work, and it has been for years. So it kind of surprises me that others aren’t asked to a self-evaluation. I see review time as my time to “blow my own horn”. It’s my time to advocate for myself; if I can come up with a big list of accomplishments, it makes it more likely that I’ll get a bigger raise.

      3. esra*

        I’m surprised at the amount of ‘nope’s. Everywhere I’ve worked you’ve had to do a self-assessment as well.

        I am never falsely modest though, it’s all “esra is amazing” all the time.

    5. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      I also write my own assessment every year. I’m at a point where I rock, so I tend to have a number of accomplishments completed and goals met.

      I tell my boss that I’m rate myself highly because that’s how I feel about my work compared to others in a similar role to mine (I see what they do, and those of us in the same roles are ranked). From my perspective, it’s up to my boss to tell me why an accomplish we prized isn’t enough to get a top rank, and I can live with that.

      I’ve stopped mentioning improvement areas on my review, taking that focus away entirely. We have separate plans to beef one’s skills, and that’s where I track my needs and review them periodically with my boss.

  7. KR*

    My supervisor is fantastic in almost all other aspects of her job but once she told me in my annual review that she was giving me all 4/5s because if she gave me a 5/5 it meant she had to write an explanation.

    1. periwinkle*

      That sounds like the fault of the organization, not the supervisor.

      I used to work at a company that did the dreaded stacked ratings (boooo). The department was only allowed to have X% of people at the highest rating level and was required to have X% of people at the lowest rating. The managers had to move points around to match the rating system rather than actual performance. Our annual bonus amount was determined by those ratings – the highest level got the highest bonus, the lowest level got no bonus, and the 80% in the middle all got the same bonus regardless of whether we were barely above the bottom or below the top. My manager explained it to me during my performance review (we were HR) and said that was why I came in a couple tenths of a point below the highest level – there was no room in the top level. Yeah, I resigned shortly thereafter.

      I would have blamed the system more if the top ratings and thus best bonuses didn’t go almost exclusively to the managers…

    2. anonanonanon*

      Both corporate companies I’ve worked at have given almost everyone 4/5 or “meets expectations” instead of “exceeds expectations” because it means you get a raise, but not a big raise. So everyone, no matter how much or little they do, gets the standard 1% raise (and if we’re really lucky and there’s enough money in the budget, we get 2%). But a 5/5 or “exceeds expectations” means executive management will pretty much pitch a fit and ask for explanations or say there’s not enough in the budget to justify a 5-10% raise.

      It’s more a fault of the company, not the manager, but I understand that it’s hard not to feel a bit bitter towards the person giving you this information.

      1. Jennifer*

        Well, at least they’re being honest and saying this is why you have no hope of a raise, it’s not like you can actually improve.

        1. anonanonanon*

          All told, even a 2% raise doesn’t cover one month’s rent (the downfall of living in an East Coast city, I guess). I don’t even think most major corporate employers abide by the whole cost of living raise/salaries anymore.

          At my previous company there was one year where everyone got a raise of half a percent AND insurance costs went up, so in the end you actually got a decrease in salary.

    3. Argh!*

      Where I work 1s or 5s have to have accompanying documentation. So your boss isn’t documenting you correctly. You could ask what you could provide to give her documentation for next time.

    4. Girasol*

      My oddest review was when my new boss said I deserved fives but he had to give me all ones. Procedures called for a raise if one’s rating was much higher than one’s pay scale, and he didn’t have enough in his budget to pay for more than ones. Another example of “you deserve rating X but I’m going to give you less because .”

  8. Jake*

    I’m being evaluated next week by a guy who I’ve talked to less than an hour over the past year and only knows anything about me from a second hand source that has no clue what’s going on. I know he’ll open with line one from the post too.

    I’ll get a great review, but it’s meaningless considering who is performing the review and how it’s being developed.

  9. NotGonnaAdult*

    Another pointer… Don’t tell the employee that one of the reasons they’re not getting a raise is because of the (company policy) maternity leave they took that year.

    That INFURIATED me. I took the freebie company policy two week paid maternity leave and added my two weeks of PTO that I had saved up to make it a whopping four weeks of maternity leave. On top of that, for each of the last three nights of working up to and including the morning when I went into labor, I was up until at least 3am busting my butt and getting stuff done to limit the impact that my leave would have on my team members.

      1. NotGonnaAdult*

        It likely wasn’t. I submitted my resignation, I gave the reason why, and a team of other higher ranking managers rushed to make things right with me. They acknowledged that it was wrong of the senior manager to say that, they gave me a generous offer to stay, as well as a promise that soon after, I would no longer report to the senior manager in question. They followed through on everything, and probably most importantly, I think the original senior manager learned a very important lesson.

        1. Angela*

          Pretty sure it would fall under discriminating for using FMLA. You aren’t allowed to penalize an employee who needs FMLA-protected leaves. Of course, not everyone qualifies for FMLA.

          1. Biff*

            Not giving them a raise, however, is not penalizing them. That doesn’t seem all that different than say, not giving a raise to someone who took a leave-of-absence. It might be an awkward conversation to have, but saying “we are limiting raises to those who go way above and way beyond this year” and “because you were out for a month, you weren’t present for critical moments on the big project” isn’t really penalization, IMO.

            1. NotGonnaAdult*

              Well, they did word it like “your maternity leave time was worth $$$ and that’s why.”

              When it comes to productivity, I was absolutely one of the top performers that year even with my leave.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              I would have to ask why they offered it, if they were going to penalize me for it.

              I worked for one place that let you accrue sick time. Try to use it, though. Companies should not offer stuff that they have no intention of backing up.

            3. fposte*

              If you didn’t give raises to anybody who took a leave of absence, you’re right, it’s not a breach of the PDL not to give a raise to the person who was out on maternity leave.

              But if you have given raises to people who were out on leave–or if this is the only time it’s come up and you have no useful proof that you routinely deny raises to people who were out on leave–you’re on thin ice under the PDL.

              Now, my understanding is that FMLA is actually more protective–that you can’t have the leave you took held against you under FMLA, period. I’m seeing a description of one case where an employee was demoted for reduced productivity when she was on intermittent FMLA, and the court found for the employee, because the reduction was because of FMLA leave and therefore couldn’t be held against the employee.

        2. Coffeepots by Hazel*

          IANAL, but I believe the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Part of this is that you need to treat maternity leave or other pregnancy-related time off the same way you would other time off for temporary medical conditions. If you deny Jane a raise because she took maternity leave, but give Fergus a raise despite his having been on medical leave for a kidney transplant or heart surgery, that’s probably not legal in the US. (And if you’re denying raises to anyone who took medical leave during the year, whether or not it was pregnancy-related, you may not be violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but you may end up violating the ADA if any of those medical leaves were disability-related.)

          1. fposte*

            Right. So it’s possible that it was legal to ding NGA because they dinged Fergus. Or that they didn’t have enough people on staff to be covered by the law. Or that NGA isn’t in the US. Or that FMLA wasn’t involved (another law under which this could have been illegal).

            But I think it’s pretty likely that they just blew it and this wasn’t legal.

    1. KG*

      As a Canadian I was completely ignorant, until recently, to the horribly short maternity leaves you get in the US. In Canada, we get a full year. I can’t imagine only having a month.

  10. I want to cry.*

    I had a meeting yesterday in which 2 and 3 happened. And I suspect some of the feedback was based on 4, but not overtly so. I really enjoy my job, but I think it might be time to move on :(

  11. Bee Eye LL*

    What do you say to an employee on mood altering medication who has occasional “spells” especially during medication changes?

    “What kind of pills you on now?”
    “They aren’t working!”

    1. Biff*

      I have a friend who has a lot of trouble with medication. It works for 6-8 months and then just stops. Or they start swimming in side-effect soup. After we figured out that this was happening, we were just very matter-of-fact when the meds started to fail. In your case I’d suggest something like:

      “Fergus, I’m noticing that you seem to be experiencing Symptom X and Symptom Y. I know you sometimes have episodes when you switch meds and I wanted to let you know that these seem to not be working. Do you need to take an afternoon off to visit your doctor and get this sorted?”

      1. Bee Eye LL*

        But then it sounds like you are giving borderline medical advice. It seems to hit one of those gray areas where you have to be real careful what you say because it could get into disability territory.

        1. Biff*

          I don’t think it’s all that different from telling an employee with a chronic cough or post-nasal drip that they need to see a doctor about it and get it resolved before returning to work.

          1. fposte*

            Saying “We require doctor’s clearance before you come back to work”–fine. “You have episodes with your meds and need to consider new meds”–not fine.

            1. Biff*

              I can’t decide if the industry I work in is just way out of line with normal or what…. sometimes it matches up what you guys all talk about, and sometimes we’re about 14 solar-systems away from what is supposedly normal.

      2. fposte*

        I strongly recommend against raising an issue about your employees’ meds, no matter how close you are.

        Focus on the behavior. “You’ve been nodding off at the desk this week. I know a lot of things can contribute to that, and if you need time off or other workplace assistance, I’m happy to help. I know we’ve talked in the past about medical issues that might contribute, and I know that can be a challenge. But I also need you to stay awake regularly at work. Can you tell me when you anticipate being able to do that, so I have an idea of what makes sense for the workflow in the meantime?”

        1. Biff*

          Only if you haven’t had a frank conversation with the employee about WHY they are experiencing issues. If they’ve been up front about the fact that they have breakthrough symptoms when they change meds, I don’t see a need for smoke and mirrors.

          1. fposte*

            It’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s that other people’s meds aren’t yours to raise as an issue unless you’re the parent talking to your minor child. It’s hugely invasive and inappropriate.

            1. Nother Name*

              Even better. I once had a manager suggest that I needed meds because of women my age often need a little something to improve their mood – it had made a world of difference for her and another woman at the office. Apparently, when you hit 40, you go crazy.

              (We will put aside the fact that we were doing more work with less staff yet all the other areas made extreme and often unreasonable demands upon us – but yeah, the problem was MY brain chemistry. Funny that the most unreasonable people were women 10-15 years my senior…)

            2. Not So NewReader*

              Right on. I had a manager not only tell me that I needed to change meds (very bad ear infections, lost time from work) BUT also told me that my doctor was inadequate for specific reasons and told me I needed a different doctor.
              I was genuinely afraid she was going to pick a doctor and I had to go to that person or else lose my job.
              It does not matter if the employee has opened the topic of meds or not, the best approach is not to get involved in the particulars of their treatment at all.

          2. Meg Murry*

            For in between Biff and fposte – if the person has straight up said to you “hey, I’m changing my meds, please let me know if you see any odd reactions from me so I can discuss with my doctor” or something along those lines, that opens the door for you to say “I think you are having side effects, talk to your doctor about your meds”. Otherwise I agree with fposte that you do need to stay away from giving medical advice.

            I’ve mentioned to former bosses something a little vaguer than that, along the lines of “hey, FYI, I’m taking some new medications that may affect my blood sugar. I should be fine, but if there were to be an emergency at work, my prescription bottles are in my purse, please give that to the EMTs”. But that came out of watching a coworker being taken away on ambulance after fainting, and we couldn’t get hold of his family members immediately to find out if there was anything the EMTs or ER needed to know about what might have caused it.

            I think the other difference is that Biff is mentioning it as a concerned friend, whereas fposte is coming at it from a boss. Management needs to be extra careful with this kind of conversation.

            1. fposte*

              Thanks–I totally missed that Biff was talking about saying it as a friend and was indeed responding completely from a managerial standpoint. Sorry, Biff. (And I also agree that if that’s a specific that’s part of a conversation it could be another matter.)

            2. Not So NewReader*

              This may sound picky, but the conversation should not take place inside an evaluation/review. Wait to the review is completed and then discuss it.

    2. Argh!*

      I had one who claimed he was diagnosed with a mental condition that didn’t require medication. I happen to know two people who are medication for the same condition, so I suggested a second opinion. This person has a habit of making excuses for himself and expecting me to accept sub-par work. I have reminded him numerous times that he is expected to do his job and to do whatever he has to do to be in condition to do it, or else go through the ADA process. I told him I refuse to lower the bar for him on the basis of his say-so about a condition.

  12. NotGonnaAdult*

    It likely wasn’t. I cried the rest of that day while also sending out my resume like a madwoman.

    A few weeks later, I submitted my resignation and gave the reason why, and a team of other higher ranking managers rushed to make things right with me. They acknowledged that it was wrong of the senior manager to say that, they gave me a generous offer to stay, as well as a promise that soon after, I would no longer report to the senior manager in question. They followed through on everything, and probably most importantly, I think the original senior manager learned a very important lesson.

  13. BRR*

    My old boss did number all throughout my PIP… with the other two people at my level who had each been there 8 years.

      1. BRR*

        2, my bad.

        “Your productivity isn’t where the other two’s productivity is who have been here four times as long”

  14. Just A Girl*

    What are some good ways for a person receiving #3/#4 style (personality-based or “abrasive”-studded) feedback to handle the review graciously and work to improve whatever perception generated the feedback?

    1. Biff*

      Do, however, consider this course of action (taken by someone near and dear to me): She decided that someone who was going to be focused on gendered feedback that demanded her to be more ‘femme’ and more emotionally available to clients, etc, etc, was not actually going to help her become more professional in her chosen field. She realized, furthermore, that adjusting her approach to become more what they wanted would kill her ability to put out the kind of work she was becoming known for, and it would completely undermine her ability to develop and grow as a creative professional. When she took stock of how awesome she actually was, she rewrote her resume and left.

    2. Parcae*

      I once was told in a review that some of my co-workers had complained that I was “unfriendly” and “cold.” My written review said that I needed to improve my interpersonal skills. I probed for details, but my boss couldn’t identify any specific behaviors or incidents of unfriendliness. Was I being rude to my co-workers? My boss hadn’t observed any rudeness. Did I need to pitch in more on my co-workers’ projects? No, my boss was very happy with that part of my performance. Did I need to work on my customer service skills? No, my attitude was good and our clients seemed to like me. Etc. I concluded that the entire thing was BS and my boss knew it, but she thought she had a responsibility to address all complaints. In the meeting, though, I tried to strike a tone of “concerned and eager to improve.” When my boss refused to give me a specific example of behavior(s) to change, I proposed my own plan: I would greet each of our team members at least twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and make brief small talk about their work and personal lives. My boss objected that this was silly and that I should “just try to be a little friendlier in general.” I told her that made me uncomfortable and that I needed a concrete plan to improve, since I considered any rating of “needs improvement” to be unacceptable. I ended up convincing her to record my so-called plan for improvement in my review, and then implemented it in a very showy way for the next couple of weeks. I doubt my coworkers suddenly started liking me more, but my “unfriendliness” did not reappear in my next review. I think I embarrassed Boss (who was not a perfect manager, but also not a crazy person) into realizing how pointless that kind of feedback was.

    3. Althea*

      I’d favor one or both avenues:

      “Can you explain exactly how this has impacted my work?” With eliciting very specific questions such as “Has the perception of ‘coldness’ prevented the coworker from approaching me for information? Has the appearance of ‘abrasiveness’ shut down open discussion of ideas in particular meetings?” Things like that. I think a manager really has to work to justify how these slippery attitude descriptors actually impact you and your coworkers. If they can, they’ve probably also given some specific examples of how/when you could improve on them.


      “Can you give me some concrete actions I can take to improve on this?” If they don’t, then “Can we come up with a next step right now that will help me find some actions I can take?” That might be exploring the context of when/how people see you as ‘abrasive’ by, say, making a small diary of your daily interactions and looking back at them; discussing with trusted coworkers how you are coming off and when they see you as ‘unfriendly,’ having the manager come back with some direct observations so they can tell you some specifics…

      It’s the manager’s job to guide these kinds of improvements, so if they want to see it done they have to do some work, too!

  15. AMG*

    Don’t tell your direct report that she’s a ‘dumb bunny’. Especially when she’s one of the top performers in the entire department and gets praise and accolades on a weekly basis. I got called ‘Bugs Bunny’ for a while by some good-natured coworkers as a result and my boss soon got the nickname Do-the-opposite-Dan, from the Seinfeld episode where they tell George Costanza to just do the opposite of whatever he thinks is a good idea.

      1. Daria*

        I was called Eeyore by a director, and was told that I should be more like Tigger. Sometimes people just don’t think before they speak.

        1. Joie de Vivre*

          No worries, Eyore. I was called Tigger and told to tone it down because apparently no can “realistically be that happy”.

          1. Holly*

            I’ve been told I’m too much like “Batman” and I need to be a lot more like “Captain America” (less broody, apparently, and more happy and can-do.)

            1. Lily Rowan*

              Now I want to tell that to someone. But obviously not someone who reports to me and only as a joke!

            2. Marian the Librarian*

              I’d be tempted to respond: “Oh, Batman? You mean, the major badass who solves crime without complaint while simultaneously running his family’s enormous company, all without even having any superpowers? Thanks!”

            3. Sarak*

              Captain America, un-broody? Because nothing says normal and well-adjusted like hanging out at a museum exhibit about your dead friends and jumping out of airplanes with no parachute, I guess.

        2. Nother Name*

          This is based on some speech that a bunch of management types like to see. The basic idea is that there are two types of people: Eeyores and Tiggers. And they want people to be Tiggers, which I guess means that we’re all supposed to go out and destroy Rabbit’s garden or something.

          Of course, it misses that point that, not only are there multiple characters in the 100 Acre Woods, but if we should strive to be like anyone, it’s the reasonable, problem-solving Christopher Robin.

          There are two types of people in this world, those who think there are two types of people in this world, and the rest of us with actual life experience.

  16. _ism_*

    Don’t forget this gem: “Oh that chat we had at 5pm last Friday? That was your performance review.”

  17. Argh!*

    #2 – my boss, who has years of experience, has done this in one-on-ones and that was the beginning of me being soured on working here. She wouldn’t give me specifics, or tell me who I was being measured against. The first time I challenged her and told her that my product was just as good or better than others. She seemed surprised. There is a wide range of quality on this one thing because there’s no particular standard. It’s a customer service thing so we all just do what we think is necessary. Another time I did get out of her what she wanted – without comparisons – and it was rather disheartening. She’s a micromanager and wants a level of detail in reports that I’ve never had to give to other managers. Apparently her other reports, who have worked here longer, figured this out on their own but I had to be told. Well… yes, I do have to be told. If you don’t tell me what you want you have no grounds to criticize me when you don’t get it! grrrrrr

    oh wait….. Argh!!!!!!

  18. Anouk*

    Can I lend my support to not surprising your employee with feedback and dinging them on things they did months and months ago?

    I was once completely sideswiped by a performance review like that. After it was over, I had to write a response and have it signed by her. Baffled but trying to see my boss’s point of view, I wrote out how I planned to improve for each point she had raised, even though I thought 80% of them were completely idiotic (eg. you don’t take breaks with the rest of the department, even though your schedule means you are not at the same site as us for the majority of the day) and hyper aggressive – ‘When I give you advice, TAKE IT’.

    At the end I added ways she could help me reach these goals:
    -being explicit with instructions (with example of what she could say versus what she had said that would help me)
    -letting me know immediately if she was unhappy with something I did, as I couldn’t remember events very well from six months ago – and the things she brought up were now ‘bad habits’ rather than something that could have been fixed more quickly.

    I worded this in the most careful way possible, framing the whole thing as something that would benefit her in the end.

    Then she complained about my ‘outrageous’ feedback, and how I had no right to tell her what to do or how to be a manager.

    Left, landed a great new job. I get on quite well with my now boss, so six months in I felt comfortable enough (albeit nervous) to bring up these past criticisms, saying I just wanted to make sure there were no problems before my annual performance review because I didn’t want to be surprised. When I asked him if he thought I was undermining, negative, antisocial, etc, etc, he literally put his hand up to his mouth, then shook his head.

    Then he just stared at me, like he was trying to figure something out.

    ‘No. I don’t see that whatsoever.’

    Pause. More staring.

    ‘No. Not at all.’

    Pause. More staring.

    ‘What? No.’

    Redemption. Now I have a boss who gets nervous whenever I ask to talk to HIM privately. Half the time it ends with, ‘Oh, I’m glad it was only that. I was afraid you were going to leave us.’

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Nice isn’t it? My boss spent the first few months saying, “Will you actually come back tomorrow?”
      Out loud voice: “Yes, I will come back.”
      Internal voice: “Hell, YEAH! Anyone who can ask as nicely as that, I will definitely be back.”

    2. Jennifer*

      Hah, I quit being an officer in an organization because the president went ballistic on me and started yelling about everything he thought I hadn’t done in the last six months. (Note: if he’d asked about this stuff earlier, I could have explained things like “nobody volunteered to carpool.”) I was all “oh my god, you’re a psycho” and had to get the hell out of there.

  19. sapidity*

    Sigh… just had my review, which included a heavily implied 1 (yes, please do send your comments ten minutes before I begin a training which, as we have discussed, will end just before our meeting for my review so I can come in completely clueless), not exactly 2 but a lot of discussion of faults of my former (dismissed) supervisor and how I should “consider any part I played” in his… issues and the effect they had on the team. Debatable 3 and 4 in comments about my communication, which simultaneously great and very intentional, but also I shouldn’t overthink so much– or I should take my time and think through my thoughts before I voice them? All of that, evidently, and this is apparently enough to sum up as “Needs improvement”, which would normally be accompanied by a PIP, but my current supervisor doesn’t want to do that… she just wants to say “Needs improvement”.

    I’m seriously glad to have this article come along right now to reassure me that I’m not going crazy and this is not a particularly functional or useful way to conduct a performance review.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Wow, maybe if you played a part in getting your old boss dismissed, she is afraid you will get her dismissed, too. Maybe she thinks you have clout in high places.

      1. sapidity*

        Oh, no no, definitely not that, more like “what part could you have played in the dysfunction of the team”… my current supervisor was over my previous supervisor, *she* had him dismissed.

    2. A Definite Beta Guy*

      AAM is a useful antidote to poisonous insanity elsewhere, IMNSHO. Other professionals saying “you know, this is how things should actually work” reminds me that the peculiarities of my position are not productive or standard and I am not insane.

      Unfavorable criticism was foisted on me at my review as well, which no one bothered to share with me at any prior point. Not surprising, given my mid-year review consisted of “uhhh, so how do you think things are going? Hmmmm…I guess this is one of your goals this year” and my review last year was “I can’t really give you any specific feed-back, but keep up the moderately okay work.”


      Earth keeps spinning, God is Great, Beer is Good, and People are Crazy.

      1. sapidity*

        Antidote, or at least reassurance, for sure. And a great reminder that there are places out there that do things well.

        Yeah, that’s definitely not a super helpful review. Mine, except for the sum-up of “needs improvement”, really didn’t say anything in particular that I should improve on, so I guess that’s… good? But like you say, doesn’t give anything to work on.

  20. Ms. Anne Thrope*

    Performance review? What’s that?

    I got the ‘you did this Thing that we never mentioned before’ when I was fired from my first full-time job. Apparently they’d been assuming that whenever I took off sick on a MOn or Fri that I was slacking. But they never said anything, so I never submitted the doctors’ notes that I’d gotten. >:[

    Back when we used to get reviews at Current Job (which, like the phases of the moon, processed during the year as they were always a few months late) I also got the “everyone’s a 3/5” thing. Apparently no one has thought of the possibility that declaring everyone ‘equal in mediocrity’ is not a formula for motivation.

  21. Daenerys T*

    One of the biggest “it’s time to move on” signs at OldJob was when I received my performance review.

    The way it was supposed to work was your direct manager would fill out the review, send it to HR, and HR would then email it to you along with what bonus you had received from your overall score.

    Our HR Director had emailed my boss and said “Give Daenerys all 3s (out of a possible 5). Use the attached form, I already filled out the comments.”

    Problem was, she forgot to delete her instructions to my manager…

  22. Jeanne*

    If you decide to give vague personality complaints in performance reviews, decide what you want to see as improvement. “I’ll know it when I see it” is not a goal I can work toward. Also, I will not take you seriously if your complaint is I breathed funny in a meeting.

  23. Fish Microwaver*

    My manager hasn’t even bothered to do mine from 6 months ago and as far as I know, she did everyone else’s. I get the message.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      That was always a flag for me too, in my current job, which is ending today. (New job on Monday!) The Boss was horrid about avoiding correcting people, so when he didn’t like what an employee did or didn’t feel they were doing their job appropriately, he’d just not give them raises for years, until they quit or he finally got angry enough to fire them. But he would never, ever tell them what they were doing wrong so they could correct it.

      But he also tends to review people about six months late, even he likes you.

  24. Boo*

    Also, don’t compare the employee unfavourably to your daughter, or tell her she should “smile more” (both done to me by the same female boss in the same performance review shortly after a bereavement, an assault, and her threatening to put me on a PIP).

    1. Boo*

      Oh oh and also, don’t pull out a list of stuff the employee apparently did wrong over the last six months and surprise her with it.

      1. Beancounter in Texas*

        My boss does this. He writes the whole review down, literally reads it to you and doesn’t let you interject responses to his accusations.

        I haven’t been reviewed in over a year. Today is my last day here. Woohoo!

      2. Court*

        Seriously! My workplace does this all the time. If there’s a problem with performance, they wait until the review to address it.

  25. JL*

    Ex-boss used to take the comments from other people that he’d collected, and then feed them back without any filter and sanity-check. So we’d get criticised for issue A, and when we asked more about that – “can you give an example of a situation when this happened? what kind of adjustments do you think i should make to address that?” he’d draw a blank. It was infuriating. Unless everyone else you worked with adored you, you could never get a good review – and because this was a high-conflict environment, no one could ever be universally liked, unless they were a doormat.

  26. Molly Millions*

    Thing I never want to hear again in a performance review: “If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, I’m certainly not going to tell you.”

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      People like that should work for FICO. They don’t release the standards needed to be met for positive scores either.

  27. Court*

    Ugh, the gender feedback is so important. I was once marked down in a performance review because I “glared at my screen too often.” I didn’t realize that a woman focusing on her work at her job was going to be misconstrued as glaring (Yes, I have a problem with my resting face but what am I supposed to do? Smile at the computer screen?). I know guys in that office who actually glare at their screens all day and have never been hit with a comment about physical appearance while doing so.

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