Performance Evaluations: 5 Do’s and Don’ts

Some will say there’s only one don’t to performance evaluations — don’t do them. Tom Peters said it takes the average employee six months to recover, and that performance evaluations are the worst things manager do. I think he’s exaggerating — I’ve done much worse things.

But I accept much of his point — it’s much better not to do it at all if you can’t do it right. But done right, there can be tremendous value.


  1. Don’t Write anything in the performance review that you haven’t already said personally. Reviews are not a chance to play “gotcha.” Your people have to have confidence that you’re trying to build them up. Don’t betray them here.
  2. Don’t Feel you have to write something negative. You don’t. If the person is doing a great job and there’s nothing you need to point out for correction, don’t force yourself to write negative things. Yes, everybody has room for improvement. That doesn’t mean you need to write negatives in the eval.
  3. Don’t Let an important issue go by. If there’s an issue, and you’ve discussed it, and it’s still an issue, you have to put it in. Write it constructively. Make sure you’ve led with enough positive that the employee knows you’re on his or her side, and are trying to mentor. And then let the person know that this is a serious issue that must be fixed.
  4. Don’t Use a numbering system. Don’t do this. Ever. Nothing good can come out of telling a person that they’re  a 4 out of 5 on this and a 3 out of 5 on that. Don’t go there. Use your words, not numbers.
  5. Don’t Bash somebody in a performance review to prepare the ground for firing them. Or even worse, to try to hurt them enough that they’ll quit. If you want to officially inform somebody that you’re that unsatisfied with their performance, write them a warning letter. Put them on probation. In both cases, let them know what you need them to fix. The performance review is your chance to help your people grow. If you’re writing it for any other reason, stop doing performance reviews.

Do use this opportunity to:

  1. Praise good performance. If they’ve been busting their asses for you, let them know you’ve noticed.
  2. Listen to them. Some people don’t have much to say, that’s fine. Some will surprise you by talking for over an hour. You can and should let them know that they can always come in and talk, or set up a meeting to talk. But it’s good to have this forced time when it’s easier to prompt them to let it all out. What are their thoughts on this past year? How would they like next year to be better. What can you do to make them happier and more productive. Get them talking and see what you can learn. I learned a lot in these conversations, and hope to post some of those lessons next week.
  3. Give them a chance to influence the review before you write it. I sent my people the blank form and told them “It’s possible that there are things that you do well that I haven’t noticed, or forgot, or undervalue. Here’s a chance to tell me those things, and help me write the right things, and help me better understand and value your contributions. Whether or not my manager requests a self-eval from me, I intend to send him my views of myself, which I notice are generally considerably higher than other people’s views of me (coincidence, probably).” Some people used this opportunity to tell me all the good stuff they’re doing. Some also used the opportunity to be very self-critical (which I BTW think is generally a good idea), and tell me where they think they screwed up and how they hope to improve. All told, I got great stuff from this, and I think it helped the people who (voluntarily) filled these out.
  4. Be smart about any negative feedback:
    1. Think ahead. Months in advance, make sure to discuss any negative feedback you’d want to put here. The performance review should never be the first place they hear about an issue where you’re unhappy with them.
    2. Use “Oral Torah” where possible. By that I mean that many things are better said than written. Keep separate notes of any negative messages you need to get across. You’ll often be more successful with this message if it’s verbal and unofficial.
    3. If there are negative things that need to be written, write them. Serious negative issues cannot go past the review without being put into black and white here. Don’t wimp out. But do try not to get to this point.
  5. Show the love. It’s corny but true. I love my people. And I try to make the reviews serious, heartfelt, useful and constructive short documents. I don’t always succeed. But ideally once you’re finished they should know how much you care.

One more — be creative. If your organization lets you (and mine does, thankfully), figure out the format that works best for you. For me, it’s essay format. The questions that HR gave me served as my jump off point, and it helped me write. But I didn’t want to fill out a form rating my people — I wanted to write a document that would help them grow. Maybe some other format, works better for other managers.

In summary, if you’re going to be the elementary school teacher giving out report cards, it’s better to avoid the entire exercise. But if you can use this to help bond, mentor, and listen, then do it. Just do it right.