NOTE: This article is not intended to be legal advice. The writer is neither a lawyer nor a legal expert.
Do you dread giving performance reviews even more than getting them? Are you so afraid of getting sued you’ll say only nice things – and set your bewildered employee up for worse consequences later?
Or do you see performance reviews as an easy way to get rid of troublesome people?
The truth is, many business researchers and managers question the value of performance reviews. Some companies have done away with them altogether. But if your company requires them, you should take steps to avoid ending your own career while evaluating someone else’s.
Let’s look at three mistakes made by Michael, a senior manager, as he reviewed Kevin, one of his direct reports. Details are disguised but the events are accurate.
Mistake #1: Not sticking to components of the employee’s job description.
A surprising number of managers actually invent job requirements. For instance:
“Kevin missed the executive retreat, where attendance was mandatory.”
The retreat wasn’t mentioned in Kevin’s job description. The company wasn’t able to produce evidence that (a) attendance was mandatory and (b) Kevin had been informed of the requirement.
Mistake #2: Exaggerating or even inventing employee deficiencies.
“Kevin consistently received complaints from customers and below-average ratings on customer satisfaction.”
This statement sounds pretty straightforward. But Michael, Kevin’s manager, couldn’t produce even one complaint. Kevin’s ratings were consistently above average, with an occasional “Outstanding.”
This example may seem far-fetched, but employment lawyers will tell you that fantasy-based criticisms are nothing new. They’re especially dangerous when the employee belongs to a protected class based on age, sex or race, especially if the employee has received good reviews up to now.
Mistake #3: Providing vague criticisms of “attitude” and “effort” instead of well-documented deficiencies.
Michael wrote, “Kevin needs to work on his attitude. He doesn’t show the dedication to his work that we’d expect from a manager at his level.”
Employees understandably become angry when they try to deal with comments that can’t be proven one way or another.
Even worse, they can’t do anything to improve because they honestly don’t understand what the manager is talking about. Kevin’s manager should point to specific behaviors that do tangible harm to the company. Whether Kevin’s got a case or not, why deal with an angry employee who’s likely to return to his cubicle and phone his golf buddy lawyer?
Make sure your employees know where they stand by providing regular feedback throughout the year. Your review session will go more smoothly when employees know what to expect. When you sense an employee’s response will be especially fiery, you can arrange to have someone with you to as a witness.
In our example, Michael is handing Kevin’s lawyer a gift, especially if Kevin is in a protected class and can demonstrate other forms of bias. With a review that shows malice, however, Kevin might walk away with a settlement because Michael’s company won’t want the publicity. Michael can find straightforward steps to take to reach his objective with Kevin, whether he wants to nudge Kevin to better performance or take the first action leading to his dismissal.