How to give a negative performance review

Negative performance review meeting

Performance reviews are a great way to boost productivity and engage with your team. Sometimes, however, it’s not quite that simple. Especially when you’re 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 nine things to consider if you need to give a negative 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. 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 get the most out of their career) must be your main 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 more effective to focus on developing strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses, and this rule of thumb should 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

As we explain in our eGuide on performance reviews, gathering data is crucial to delivering feedback. 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 can be unproductive to dwell on it too much.

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, measurable goals, both for the short and long term.

8. Follow up

When you and your 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. Be patient and attentive, and the change will come.

9. Avoid surprises

Lastly, as we 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 (more on that here).

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.

For more on performance reviews, check out this episode of Safe for Work, the Workopolis podcast:

See also:
11 ways to give better performance reviews
How GE replaced a 40-year-old performance review system


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– Listen to Safe for Work, the Workopolis podcast
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