Phrases to Use in Performance Reviews and Other Difficult Conversations

businessman in a serious a conversation with employee

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Employees need feedback to know how they are doing and if they are meeting their manager’s expectations. Everyone loves a critique when you offer praise and satisfaction; it's more challenging when you need to discuss improving performance.

The Usefulness of Performance Reviews

Organizations hold a performance review to provide feedback, encourage employee development and assess employee progress and contribution. Whether an employee is meeting and exceeding job expectations is a critical component of the performance review feedback.

A formal performance review challenges the manager’s communication skills because the employee understands that the performance review will affect his compensation. This can cause conflict, anxiety and hurt feelings. Regardless of how your organization practices performance feedback, when you need to hold a difficult conversation, these phrases and approaches will help. Here are some tactics for providing feedback.

Your Performance Is Outstanding

This communication is easy, but you can improve its impact and effect. Mention why and give examples of the reasons for rating the employee’s performance as outstanding. The employee will learn from your examples, and you can encourage her to do more of the actions identified as noteworthy.

Your Performance Can Be Improved

Communicate that the employee is performing and meeting the expectations of the job's requirements, but he has the opportunity to improve performance and aim to become an outstanding contributor. Outline the areas that need attention.

Indicate that while his performance qualifies him for a raise because he's successfully carrying out the essential job requirements, you'd like to see improvement in specific areas.

Point out that if the employee is to earn the largest possible pay increase each year, he needs to improve current performance to accomplish that goal. Discuss the areas in which he has the greatest opportunity for improvement.

Your Performance Is Not Meeting Expectations

Note that while we’ve discussed his performance during weekly meetings, it is not improving and it’s time to talk about a plan of action. All employees are expected at a minimum to perform their job expectations.

Indicate the critical performance areas that need improvement before you can determine that his performance is meeting minimum job expectations.

Point out that the employee is not performing the minimum job expectations that you discussed for the year. You might add, "Perhaps I am not communicating this information clearly so that you understand the implications of your continued poor performance. I’ve decided that our next step is a performance improvement plan in which we set goals, make agreements, set deadlines and due dates and frequently meet to assess your progress."

Helping Employees Understand

Do not continue to repeat the same information when an employee does not seem to understand what you are trying to communicate. Find other ways to say the same thing and hope that one of them will communicate your concerns. (Keep in mind that sometimes a lack of clarity signals disagreement.)

Tell the employee that you are open to any questions that might help clarify the points he doesn’t understand. Lastly, ask him to summarize his understanding of your key areas of concern. (You can then determine what is not understood and how far apart you are in communicating.)

When the Employee Disagrees

When you have tried to communicate the problems, you note with an employee’s performance, and the employee disagrees, questioning is one recommended approach.

  • Can you provide examples that will show me what is wrong with my assessment of your performance?
  • What do you think that I am misunderstanding about the performance that I regularly observed this quarter?

The feedback that I have received from your coworkers, team members, and other managers is consistent with my observations. Consequently, I know that you disagree with my assessment, but I haven’t heard anything today that makes me want to alter it. For now, my assessment will stand. I will be happy to discuss your performance further in a month at our weekly meeting after I have seen evidence of improvement in these areas.

Summarizing the Performance Review

Tell the employee: "John, will you summarize our discussion here today so that I know that you and I are on the same page?" Express confidence in the employee’s ability to learn, grow, change, or improve: "I am confident that you will be able to make the changes that we have discussed today. I believe that you will be able to make these improvements because you have the talent and skills needed for above-average performance. I am available to help you when you encounter barriers to your success or if you feel you will miss a due date or deadline. Just let me know when this occurs as soon as you are aware of it."

Create a Follow-Up Plan

State: "Let’s make a plan together to pursue these improvements. I want to have feedback points frequently enough so that we know when a problem is occurring. Take the time between now and Thursday to come up with a plan to make these changes. On Thursday, you and I can agree on the goals and timelines for the plan. I’ll think about it also and come prepared with my ideas."

Reach Agreement on an Action Plan

Ask the employee: "Do you agree that this is an achievable plan? We have put this plan together, and I am confident that you will be able to accomplish the needed improvements within the timelines we developed. Do you agree? What concerns do you have that we can talk about today?"

Announcing an Unpopular Pay Decision

Tell the employee: "Based on your performance this year, I have determined that you are not eligible for a salary increase. Because you have not achieved your job expectations, you will not receive a raise in this cycle. I will be happy to discuss this further in 4-6 months after I have seen a sustained improvement in your performance."

State the amount of the salary increase and the amount of pay that the increase will bring in the employee’s paycheck with a new salary increase. Percentages are not always motivating. While the employee will likely do the math, your goal is to make him aware of the change in pay. Example: "Your salary increase is $500, bringing your total salary to $55,000."

When you communicate clearly and avoid a defensive reaction, you can express your expectations in a way that the employee hears. Speak so that employee listens, comprehends and improves. After all, isn't that the goal?