Writing performance reviews: What NOT to say

Say you manage Kevin, a 55-year-old employee whose productivity drops over the year. Instead of citing specific, measurable examples of this decline in his performance review, you note that "Kevin doesn’t seem to have the energy level anymore to truly succeed in this department." Still, you rate Kevin’s work as "average," the same as last year.

That example highlights two of the more common—and legally dangerous—pitfalls in writing performance reviews:

1. Evaluating attitude, not performance. Vague statements that attack an employee’s demeanor could be interpreted as some kind of illegal age, race, gender or disability discrimination. Instead, supervisors should use concrete, job-based examples to illustrate any criticism.

In the example above, referring to Kevin’s "energy level" could give him reason to complain about age discrimination. Instead, the review should have cited examples such as, "Kevin has completed three of the five major projects late this quarter and has not contributed one new product idea in six months."

For this reason, the word "attitude" should never appear in a review. Employment lawyers and courts often see that as a code word for discrimination.

Performance Review D

2. Evaluation inflation. Supervisors too often rate mediocre employees as competent, competent employees as above average and above-average employees as superior. The problem comes when an employee is fired for poor performance yet his history of reviews tells a different story. The employee, then, has a supposed proof that the real reason for the firing was something else, maybe something illegal.

Case study: Liability time bombs in employee reviews

Reviews should cite specific, well-documented examples of behaviors (pro and con). They shouldn’t use vague terms, such as "bad attitude" or "lazy." Here are excerpts from actual federal government employee reviews that use funny, but legally explosive, language:

  • "She has delusions of adequacy."
  • "I wouldn’t allow this employee to breed."
  • "He would argue with a signpost."
  • "When his IQ reaches 50, he should sell."
  • "He brings a lot of joy when he leaves the room."
  • "If he were any more stupid, he’d have to be watered."