10 Ways Managers Botch Performance Evaluations

Dec 15, 2011
9 Min Read

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 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?

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