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Performance reviews without pain

The new year can present an uncomfortable task for HR managers, who may find themselves having to say the following to underperforming employees: “Happy holidays; you’re doing a terrible job.”

No credible HR manager would be so blunt with a worker, but near the end of the year, when many companies typically do performance reviews, managers must know how to present good and bad news. Experts offer the following advice:

Provide enough warning during the year so a critical review doesn’t come as a shock to an employee. “A negative review should never come as a surprise,” said Mike Maughan, project market manager at Qualtrics 360, which sells data programs to help companies track and assess worker performance. “If it does come completely out of the blue, the manager is probably doing a poor job of handling his or her people.”

The classic “sandwich” approach still works. If you have to give criticism, deliver it in between upbeat opening and closing remarks, advised Lori Kleiman, a speaker and an author who formerly owned an HR consulting firm. Just “don’t lose the [negative] stuff in the middle. You’ve still got to hit hard.”

Let the employee set the time and date for the review. That one small gesture means workers “immediately have a sense of power. When we feel we’re in control, we’re more likely to listen to feedback,” said Stephen Balzac, president of the organizational development firm 7 Steps Ahead and author of Organizational Psychology for Managers (Springer, 2014).

Make the review a two-way conversation, and the goal future good performance. That means not having anyone else in the room, letting workers weigh in on their own performance and allowing them to participate in any improvement plan. Sometimes, the manager may not know about issues distracting an employee, such as a chatterbox co-worker, Kleiman said. Or perhaps the worker needs a mentor or extra training to improve.

It’s best for HR managers to “stay action-oriented and focus on the steps that the manager and employee can take to better align performance with expectations,” said China Gorman, CEO of Great Place to Work and former COO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “We all have a tendency to dwell on the negative; taking whatever steps we can to help employees assimilate the feedback and move forward will help minimize negativity.”

Be mindful of dealing with Millennials, who might have different expectations. Those belonging to this so-called trophy generation (they got Little League trophies even when they lost the championship game) like receiving feedback and actually want it more than once a year, Gorman noted. As for the formal review, it’s best to “keep it casual,” she said. “At the risk of stereotyping, this is a generation that is not a huge fan of authority. You may have better success if you approach the conversation as a coach, rather than as a boss.”

Be ready to handle pushback and emotional reactions. If someone refuses to sign a poor review, Kleiman said, the manager should invite a third party to enter the room, hear the employee acknowledge having heard the review, and then leave. Workers who cry or become emotional should be given the chance to leave the room and collect themselves before continuing the review.

And if you have to fire someone? First, do everything you can to avoid such drastic action, Kleiman recommended. “It’s a lot easier to save current employees than hire new ones,” she noted. But if termination is unavoidable, first take steps to ensure that the individual’s access to sensitive information is disabled, especially if the worker is in the IT, accounting or some other department where security is an issue.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

©2014, Society for Human Resource Management.

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