Handling Performance Reviews When You Are The Boss

I got you the list of everything you did wrong for the past year! Surprise!

I need to take a break from watching Japan earthquake and tsunami footage, so it’s time for a little light amusement and a follow-up to yesterday’s post on preparing for performance reviews.

For your amusement, may I present:  Sad Etsy Boyfriends, a photo montage of the kind, brave men who have agreed to model their girlfriends’ knitting creations.  It reminds me of a site that never fails to make me pee my pants:  Cat Prin, The Tailor for Cats.  Someone with more free time than me should do a Tumblr mashup of the two.

Writing yesterday’s question made me remember the first time I had to give a performance review to an employee and how I messed that up bad.  Here’s what I did wrong:  I saved up any and all negative feedback for the performance review.  I assumed that the employee should just, like, know how to be.  This was exacerbated by the fact that at the time he was at least five years older than me and had a Master’s degree to my three-years-out-of-college.  I had wanted to hire someone awesome who could do the work and be promoted quickly and who wouldn’t need too much supervision, and I respected his smarts and talent to death, but I didn’t respect him enough to be straight and up front with him when I had a correction or a suggestion to make.

So when performance review time came, like a good Vulcan, I wrote what I thought was a fair and balanced critique along the lines of “Mostly amazing, can work on these one or two things.”  The review was my opportunity, I thought, to put everything on the table. The employee walked away from it dejected and pissed off at me and my boss had to step in, like, “Oh, honey, no,” and then he showed me how it’s done.  Since performance reviews are awkward and tense for both parties, I figured I’d pass that info on to you.

For the purposes of this post, assume that we are talking about a mostly good employee that you don’t want to fire.

First, it’s not a surprise party, where the surprise is that you suck! And look! There is a list of all the ways you’ve sucking for the last year, trying to hide behind the couches and stuff so they can jump out and yell at you.  You shouldn’t be saying anything negative in a performance review that you haven’t brought up before.  So I’d like to make an argument that “Hey, knock it off!”  is a better approach than “We need to talk”  in managing employer-employee relationships.

Face it, there are some things that are Not Okay at work. People should not be verbally abusive and insulting, they should not harass each other, that one coworker should not chit-chat at you all day while you are working, that other guy should wear deodorant.  They need to care about their work and not slack or shirk. They need to run things by you before they tell clients stupid things that you spend the next 6 months backtracking from.

The best way is to offer critiques on the spot as they come up.  When you notice something that’s not working, just say it in a brief, professional, not-judgmental way.  “Hey, I noticed you asking the receptionist to run errands for you on her lunch break.  I know you have a lot on your plate, but that’s not her job.”  The employee will hopefully say something like “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” and you say “Of course, I know you respect her and her work,” and then change the subject to something work related.

Be concise, don’t overjustify or apologize.  Be confident that you are in the right and the other person will hear you.

Then you let it go.

If something happens again, you can have a more serious “Okay, we talked about this” conversation, and then you start documenting and observing more closely.  An accumulation of Hey, knock it offs and We need to talks indicates a serious issue that should be handled more formally and in writing at review time.

Second, the performance review process can be a neat mentoring tool, if you let it be.

About three months before review time, take each member of your team out to lunch.  Ask them about how work is going.  Ask them about how their lives are going.  Ask them for suggestions.  Listen, listen, listen.  You can couch the lunch as an informal review.  “Performance reviews are coming up in three months, and if I had to give you one now I’d say that x, y, and z are really excellent, but a and b are a little shaky.  Does that sound about right to you?” Then ask questions.  “Is there something you need from me to make a and b happen?” is a good one.

Look what you did right there.  As long as a and b are things you’ve brought up before this moment, you maybe got the employee to buy into fixing what needs fixing.  You made it okay for her to admit her own mistakes and shortcomings.  You let her know what she’d have to do to get an excellent review from you. You made her feel valued and like you were on her side in wanting her to kick ass at her job.

You’re going to get a whole bunch of information out of these meetings, that will let you do things like look at people’s job descriptions and compensation and collaboration and do some restructuring to make your employees happier and your business more successful. And you’re going to come across as a boss who listens to her people and provides a structure for them to do well.

When the actual review comes, your employee will have either worked on a and b and brought things up to snuff, or not.  In the first case, you can write something like “We agreed that a and b were areas that needed more work and concentration, I’m happy to report that there has already been progress in that direction.”  A+ awesome review!  In the second case, “We identified a and b as areas where the employee needs improvement, and have agreed to focus more attention on those going forward.”

Finally, on yesterday’s list of things employees can negotiate for at review time, I forgot a very important item that adds no money or vacation time but makes daily life and work soooooo much better.  If they can’t give you a raise and they can’t give you more time, can they upgrade your old crappy computer?

True Story: I once worked for a non-profit that was desperate for money. They hired a fundraising person at a salary in the low $30,000s.  And then they put her at a desk with an ancient hulk of a computer that was so old it could not connect to the printer, as in no possible drivers or cables would make it print.  So if she wanted to print something she had to email it to someone else and ask them to print it out.  But the boss would not authorize money to replace her computer or, barring that, to buy a $100 cheap printer to sit on her desk.  So every day this poor woman got the constant message that she was valued so little that we wouldn’t even spend $100 to help her do her job, but she was expected to do miracles for us.  NOT GOOD.  She quit after a month, and I quit a month after that (my computer was also bad, plus I got into graduate school).

True Story #2: The “Hey knock it off!” approach works up the chain, too.  At one summer job I had a uberboss (my boss’s boss)  who was constantly a) telling “sexy” stories about his wild days in the 80s and b) “forgetting” to zip his fly and then standing right next to me when I was seated at my desk.

We need to talk” would have involved reporting him to my direct boss and then bringing in HR and making a big thing.  I would have made some lawyers a lot of money and made an enemy for life.

Hey knock it off” meant saying things like “I’m sure we’ve all had interesting sex lives, can we change the subject?” when he started telling me and the poor cameraguy who were trapped in the van with him about the time he snorted coke off some supermodel’s ass back in the day (He only told these stories on the road, when we could be road buddies together.  Awesome.)  And it meant that whenever he came by my desk, I’d just say “M___, your fly’s unzipped” and go on with whatever we were talking about.  I left with a glowing recommendation.

I’m not saying you have to put up with bullshit behavior from people – sometimes We Need To Talk, with lawyers and HR people and horrible public firing – is the way to get justice for you and for the future.  But “Hey knock it off” shut down the bad behavior in the moment and allowed me to speak up for myself with someone who had more power than me and taught him that he couldn’t behave that way around me.  When picking your battles, it’s good to have both at your command.

11 comments
  1. Jo said:

    Great post. As someone who went to a fancy pants liberal arts college, then got a professional degree, I entered the work force without a damn clue how to handle co-worker relations or manage a business. I know professional schools don’t want to become trade schools, but sometimes I think Captain Awkward’s Summer School for People Who Never Had Business or Business Communications Classes might be a winner. 😀

    • JenniferP said:

      I also possess some fancy-pants education where I learned literally nothing about how to interact with other people like a grownup. Want to open a school for people who had to learn things the hard way?

    • Jeremy said:

      It’s so funny how little practical knowledge they teach you about the nuts and bolts of performance reviews – or really most management topics. A lot of times those theory classes don’t really pay off.

  2. DaveyJ said:

    I did the negotiate-for-computer tactic, which worked beautifully, then had to use We Need To Talk and Knock It Off to actually receive said computer. IT manager felt I didn’t need or deserve it, but grudgingly ordered it on company owner’s orders. Then he kept it in the box under his desk for a further 6 months. Eventually, owner and multiple managers had to step in before he gave it up. (Intern Paul knows my pain…)

    • JenniferP said:

      So stupid – everything they were paying for your salary was wasted if you couldn’t work.

  3. This kind of thing is so helpful to me. I never intended on entering the business world. I got degrees in English writing and political science with the intention of becoming a career Army officer, and spent several years climbing the ranks in Civil Air Patrol. Well, I’m now a data entry clerk for my company, and know fuck-all about communicating in the business world. I’ve found out the hard way that what works, as far as communication, feedback, and negotiation, in the military does NOT work in business, and I’m not, let’s say, a favorite.

    The computer issue strikes a chord with me. My company keeps replacing keyboards and monitors like nobody’s business, but the program I use, as well as the tower, sorely needs updating. I have no idea how to approach this with my manager, and I get the impression that asking would do no good-apparently the owner doesn’t like investing in his business. Employee relations are terrible, and turnover is ridiculously high-there’s definitely an us-vs-them attitude at work.

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh, that sucks. This *might* work:

      First step: Mention the issue to your boss and ask if he/she can help? Don’t let on that you get the vibe that they won’t help (ie, let yourself be talked out of it before you even ask), just make your boss be the boss. “My computer needs an upgrade, it’s lagging and I can’t do x, y, and z reliably. Can you put in the request for me?”

      If she says she’ll think about it, wait a week or so, then do some research into costs and run it by her again. If she says no, say “That’s unfortunate, I can’t make x, y, and z a priority until I get that upgrade. What do you suggest I do?”

      In other words, keep putting it back on your boss to solve the problem (otherwise be an excellent employee and maintain an attitude of ‘You are a great boss, I know you’ll help me!’.

  4. betoma said:

    I read some interesting research about what makes an effective performance review one time. It was in this book “The Man Who Mistook His Computer for a Person” or something, about social interaction. Basically it said people remember criticism much better than praise (since it’s more unexpected & stressful), & they especially forget praise if you say a bunch of stressful criticisms afterward. So the “sandwich” approach of putting all your negative comments in the middle actually leaves the employee feeling like they’ve been trashed.

    The author said you should put all your critiques at the beginning, then (since anything that comes after this part will be remembered well), follow it up with a detailed account of what they did right. I’ve never given a performance review, but I wish I would have tried this technique back when I was grading freshman essays. I always wrote long, helpful comments that seemed to get completely ignored.

    • JenniferP said:

      That’s really interesting info, because I tend to front-load praise and back-load feedback when working with students. I’ve heard that students only really ingest the first three comments that get written in grading so have tried to cut down on the paragraphs of analysis of their work, this is a good inspiration to really push that.

      My teaching partner and I are changing the way we do audience surveys and feedback when screening student films in class. We used to have these rating sheets for scoring aspects of the films and then leaving comments, and I think we’re switching to a “1 compliment/1 question/1 suggestion” approach to keep it simpler and allow more discussion.

  5. My former boss needs to read this post. Then she needs to go away and act upon it. She wasn’t a malicious woman, but she did everything SO WRONG that both the people working directly under her went off long-term sick with stress. The other worker was temporary anyway, so she just didn’t come back. I eventually left, and it’s the best decision I’ve made in the last several years.

    And she was sitting there wringing her hands going “But I was only trying to help!”. She was. We believe her. That’s not the issue. She just did the reverse, and a huge amount of it was for the reasons in this post. Once again, spot on, Captain.

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