How to handle a difficult performance appraisal in summary:

  • Handling difficult appraisals can be challenging, but it is important to approach them with empathy and understanding.
  • It is crucial to prepare for the appraisal meeting by gathering all necessary information and being clear about the purpose and goals of the appraisal.
  • During the meeting, it is important to actively listen, provide constructive feedback, and work together to find solutions and set goals for improvement.

In an ideal world, all performance appraisals would be positive. It’s a great opportunity to highlight successes, make people feel good about what they’ve achieved and spur them on to even greater performance.

The reality, however, is that sometimes people’s performance is simply not up to scratch. They may be making costly mistakes, failing to respond appropriately to clients or appear to have taken their foot off the gas.

It’s tempting to brush problems like this under the carpet and hope they will go away. But ignoring under-par performance can have a snowball effect on the team.

How to handle a difficult performance appraisal Cezanne HR Blog

Colleagues get tired of correcting errors or picking up work others should be doing. Resentment starts to build and people begin to feel that if others can ‘get away with it’, they can too.

So what’s the best way to handle difficult performance appraisal and get individuals back on track? Let’s take a look at what you can do…

Prepare well:

Think carefully about how you will handle potentially difficult performance appraisals. What issues do you want to highlight? How is the individual likely to respond? What outcome are you looking for? How can you ensure the employee leaves the appraisal being clear about what needs to change and motivated to make the shift, rather than feeling completely demoralised and dejected? It’s worth remembering that many employees are very happy to accept criticism as long as it’s delivered constructively.

Take a step back:

Do a sense check by talking to others who also work closely with the individual in question. Is their experience of the employee’s work and attitude the same as yours – or is something personal getting in the way of your view? Make sure you avoid what ACAS describes as the ‘halo or horns effect’ – where you allow one aspect of someone’s performance to cloud your perspective about the rest. Are you letting one fault skew your judgement?

Be direct and specific:

Don’t skirt around the edges. If you are not upfront and direct with people they may not get the message. Make your comments specific rather than general. Give concrete examples of where people have done something wrong or behaved inappropriately. Focus on incidents you are familiar with yourself rather than those that have been reported by others, to avoid getting into a ‘he said, she said’ situation.

Dig deep:

Make the appraisal a dialogue not a diatribe. Yes, you need to be firm about what needs to change, but you also need to make the employee feel they can open up if there are problems you may not be aware of.

Often, there are hidden issues behind poor workplace performance. The person may not have adequate resources or is not being given enough time to do their job properly. They may not be getting support from colleagues, feel they are in a toxic environment or being bullied by another member of the team.

Sometimes, people may be struggling with ill-health or personal issues they haven’t previously disclosed. It’s not about allowing people to make excuses, but about making sure you have a correct handle on the situation.

Help people build self-awareness:

Sometimes, people simply can’t see that their approach is off-kilter. They lack the self-awareness to pick up when they are upsetting colleagues with a brusque approach or that their sense of humour isn’t appreciated by everyone.

If the performance issue is around inter-personal skills, try and find ways to help the individual build their self-awareness. Psychometric profiling tools*, such as Myers Briggs for example, can give people and insight into the way they operate and their impact on others, or maybe a training programme on an area like influencing skills may help them temper their approach. (*Be aware that psychometric tools should only be delivered by accredited providers).

Manage your emotions:

Delivering a difficult message is never comfortable. However carefully you plan, there is always the chance the individual will react badly and get either upset or angry. Make sure you keep calm and keep your own emotions in check.

Allowing an already difficult performance appraisal to degenerate into a shouting match isn’t going to help anyone. It can also be very difficult to remain firm if you are having to pull a liked and respected colleague up on their performance, particularly if it becomes obvious they are feeling wounded and betrayed by someone they thought was ‘on their side’. Keep calm and try to retain a clear perspective.

Set specific goals for improvement:

Be very clear about exactly what you want to change and by when and agree a date when you will get together again to review progress. Offer coaching, support and whatever training may be needed to help the individual improve. Make sure you involve the employee in the solution. People are more likely to commit to a course of action if they feel they have been part of the discussion.

Put the conversation on the record:

Make sure you record whatever has been discussed and agreed. The latest performance management software makes it easy to keep a note of appraisal conversations and to make the record transparent and accessible if either you or the individual want to check back at any time.

Keeping proper records is important so that if at any point the situation escalates and you find yourself in a disciplinary situation, you have ‘evidence’ of the fact that issues have previously been raised and individuals have been treated fairly. Make sure you are not blurring the lines between an appraisal and a disciplinary.

A performance conversation is about setting objectives, highlighting issues and helping people improve and develop. If you are dealing with a more serious issue, you need to follow the company’s disciplinary procedure to the letter or you could find yourself in hot water.

Still a bit overwhelmed by the thought of performance reviews? Check out some of our other articles for help: 

Handling Criticism: How to prepare for your performance review

Dealing with difficult conversations

How to make performance management more meaningful

Author bio

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.

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