Performance reviews: five things you shouldn't say

There is something about receiving a meeting request for a performance review that fills most people with the same sense of dread as a job interview or a parent-teacher meeting. And it's not just the employees who are anxious.

Let's face it – most bosses don't look forward to this time of year either. Every boss knows that if an annual review isn't worded perfectly, it can crush an employee's motivation, inspiration and productivity.

Want to avoid office mutiny? Ban these phrases from your vocabulary – and never, ever say "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed".

"Sorry I'm late…"

If you've scheduled a review for 2 o'clock, don't leave a team member watching the clock. Especially if, thanks to your open door policy, your employee can see you're sitting at your desk finishing your sandwich, as if time isn't an issue.

I've also heard of bosses saying to their staffer, "OK, lets get this thing over and done with …"

Take your responsibilities as a reviewer seriously – make notes beforehand and refer to them. How is an employee expected to take the review system seriously if you clearly don't want to be doing it?

"Why are you always late?"

It can be easy to fall back on cliched praise or criticism, nit-picking the individual incidents when an employee was late to a meeting or forgot to call a client, but instead switch your focus to how an employee represents your company's specific vision or mission statement.

At Zappos.com, which is frequently rated as one of the best companies to work for in the US, managers are encouraged to rate employees differently.

"We no longer rate employees on how well they accomplish tasks such as meeting deadlines or being punctual," reads their culture book, "Instead, success would be determined by how well employees embody Zappos' 10 core values, such as delivering 'wow' service or showing humility."

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When it comes to feedback, look at the big picture and ask - how does my employee align with my company's values?

"In comparison to [insert name of employee]"

Don't be the parent who says "why can't be more like your brother/sister". In a performance review, referencing your star employee is the fastest way to cause tension in your company's hierarchy. It's also rarely effective, as no two employees are the same so asking them to work in the same way, at the same pace, with the same skill sets is unrealistic.

Instead of name-dropping other employees, if you need a comparison then focus on the productivity curve of the team member you're reviewing. Have you noticed a slide in their work since they joined the company? If you need to, compare them to their past-self rather than another staffer.

"I've been meaning to speak to you about …"

Another company which takes performance reviews seriously is Netflix, which outlined its attitude to appraisal in the company's culture deck, a document which – according to Facebook head Sheryl Sandberg – may well be the most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley. "Honest always," reads a slide in the deck, "As a leader no-one in your group should be materially surprised of your views."

This is advice that bosses could benefit from – instead of making the mistake of sweeping problems under the carpet during review time. Don't be the equivalent of the girlfriend or boyfriend who says everything is fine and then dumps you out of the blue, after building up a long list of unspoken grudges. Instead, raise issues or administer praise throughout the year when the incident in question is fresh in your mind (see next point).

"So, same time next year?"

A number of innovative companies have decided that annual reviews are too infrequent, especially in an economy that is so fast-paced and ever-changing. At Adobe they no longer conduct annual reviews, instead offering "check-ins" which are more like coaching sessions and occur every eight weeks, or sooner if an employee or employer thinks it's necessary.

The upside is teaching moments can happen in real time, when victories or failures are fresh in both people's mind. The downside is – if bosses are not proactive – reviews may get pushed to the back of the to-do list and not happen at all. When it comes to employee feedback, there is a lot to be said for a 'little and often' approach – then maybe an annual review won't be necessary at all.

Got any performance review horror stories? Let us know in the comments below.

The founder and editor-in-chief of The Collective, a monthly business and lifestyle magazine, Lisa Messenger has become a leading authority on the business world, specialising in entrepreneurship and disruption. She has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and three times been a finalist in the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year awards.  

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