How to give a negative performance review

By September 22, 2016Management
Management negative performance appraisal

In the past, we’ve discussed how to give your employees reviews that will actually ignite change. Sometimes however, it’s not quite that simple, especially when faced with having to give an under-performing employee a negative review. While this can be uncomfortable, a negative performance appraisal done correctly can have a positive outcome, motivating the employee to resolve their issues and even improve productivity.

Here are 9 things to consider if you’re faced with giving a bad performance review.

1. Have your employee complete self-assessment first
Ask them to complete an honest self-assessment about a week or two before you meet with them to give them your review. This is the easiest way to understand how they perceive their own work, and if that perception aligns with your own. Look for overlaps as a way to start the conversation, particularly when it comes to finding areas of improvement. But also keep an eye out for differences – perhaps a difference in perception (and performance) is coming down to expectations.

2. Be open to amendments
You may be surprised to learn that how you perceived a situation or issue is different from how it is in reality. Are there challenges to the role that you were unaware of? Are interpersonal issues with other members of staff hampering performance? If you find that this is the case when talking to your employee, show some humility and adaptability and amend your review.

3. It’s just business – don’t make it personal
This is business, specifically, your business. No matter how uncomfortable or worried you may be about giving a bad review, you have a business to run, and getting the best possible performance out of your employee (and in turn helping them getting the most out of their career) is your objective. If giving a bad review helps, then it’s what you have to do. Take personal emotions out of it, and say what needs to be said. Do not, however, be overly aggressive or offensive. There is a way to be constructive and critical without being mean or hostile.

4. Focus on strengths
It’s been discussed, but it bears repeating: it’s more effective to focus on developing strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses. This rule of thumb should also be applied to not-so-great performance reviews. Coaching an employee to develop and hone in on their strengths can absolutely help them to perform at a higher level and give them confidence to do so.

5. Use concrete examples
Each statement about negative performance issues should be supported by at least two specific examples (three is better). If your employee dropped the ball on a one-off occasion, or due to a personal issue (e.g. divorce, a death in the family, etc.), it’s unfair to kick them down even more. However, if the issue is re-occurring, or has the potential to grow into a bigger problem, then the performance review is a great place to summarize the issue and collaborate on a plan to move forward with a resolution.

6. Base the review against their job description
If you haven’t done so already, go back into the employee’s file and take a look at their most recent job description. What was written there? It can serve as the foundation of your performance review. Are they keeping up with the tasks and responsibilities? Has the job changed? Discuss this with the employee and figure out a way to move forward with expectations that are aligned.

7. Include action items for moving forward
So you just gave your employee a terrible review. What are they supposed to do now? It’s your responsibility to work with them to come up with action plan of specific steps to take in order to correct behaviours. Create a list of actionable, preferably measurable objectives, both for the short and long term.

8. Follow up
When you and your direct report have developed an action plan, be sure to follow up quarterly, at minimum, to ensure they are on track to addressing and resolving whatever issues caused the negative review in the first place. Remember, it takes time and the appropriate coaching for an employee to course-correct certain behaviours and attitudes.

9. Avoid surprises
Lastly, as I mentioned before, nothing discussed in this performance review should come as a surprise. If it has, then you, as a manager, need to re-visit how often and to what extent you’re providing your employee with continuous feedback and mentoring.


If you were unlucky enough to give your employee a negative review this year, it’s probably a good idea to start taking steps to prevent the same thing from happening next year. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.