Once upon a time, I had 80 direct reports. Every year that meant completing 80 different performance evaluations, and then delivering those reviews to 80 different people.  

That’s a lot of evaluations.

I tried to provide the best feedback I could, to give thoughtful, insightful, specific ways people could improve, to stay focused and in the moment with each employee.

But it was tough, especially at the end of a day when I was conducting my sixth or seventh evaluation.

And that was a real problem: To the employee who received an annual performance evaluation, the meeting was a big, literally once-a-year event.

To me, a manager responsible for a lot of employees, delivering annual evaluations felt like anything but. I sometimes found myself on auto-pilot:

Experience was a valuable—if hard—teacher. Just as I learned what not to say when firing an employee, here’s what I learned to never say to employees during a performance review.

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1. “Last month I noticed… Last week I noticed…”

Almost all of the evaluations I received as an employee focused on what I did over the previous months, even if I had done incredible things throughout the entire year.

When you have a long evaluation period, you’re more likely to focus on recent performance. Focus too much on the near-term and employees naturally start to play the, “Oh yeah, my evaluation is coming up soon; it’s time to buckle down” game.

Keep records. Take notes. (I kept a folder for every employee and would periodically review my notes in each; if one had no recent additions, I knew I needed to pay better attention.) That way you can say things like, 

“You did an incredible job on that project after your last review.” OR “Nine months ago, you really turned your performance around.”

Not only will it be easier to provide a comprehensive view of each employee’s performance, it will also ensure the review reflects their performance over the entire period. And it shows your employee that you do pay attention to what they do.

2. “I just feel like you aren’t living up to your potential.”

Never refer to an area for improvement without offering up examples. In fact, never start a discussion in general terms period.

Start with data. Start with results. Start with what—then you can move to what that means.

Say something concrete like,

“You missed your target by 50 percent.” OR “You surpassed your goals by 50 percent.”

Without data, whatever point you hoped to make is lost. (And so is your employee’s faith in the integrity of the whole process.)

When you’re delivering a review, facts and figures are everything. If you don’t have them, you don’t have anything to say.

3. “Your attitude hasn’t been great.”

Never discuss personality traits—especially negative ones.

You can say, “You have a fabulous attitude.” But saying, “Your attitude isn’t great” focuses on personality, not performance.

Maybe your employee does have a bad attitude. If so, instead of saying that, list examples of actual behaviors that led you to that conclusion. Something like:

“I heard you make a snide comment during our team meeting.”

That way you can discuss the exact behaviors your employee needs to change.

Always focus on behavior, not personality. Personality discussions are rabbit holes from which you will never escape.

4. “Your numbers are nothing like Jen’s.”

Never say something like, “Your sales numbers are the worst on the team.” And don’t compare your employees to each other.

Comparisons aren’t fair and often lead to hard feelings. Instead, compare your employee’s performance to a standard, just as you would when you need to let an employee go based on sub-par performance.

If your employee does have, for example, the lowest sales numbers, but is still meeting expectations, focus on ways they can improve.

And don’t say, “Here are some things Jen does that work well…” Describe strategies, techniques, and tools that Jane uses—relentless networking, consistent follow-up, extremely detailed and individualized proposals—that can also benefit your employee’s performance.

But please leave Jen out of it.

5. “While the results don’t reflect it, I think you’re doing great.”

It’s tempting to over-rate an employee in the hope that it will motivate them. (“If I tell them they’re doing a great job, maybe that will give them the confidence boost to actually do a great job.”)

Occasionally that may work. Some people can’t believe in their abilities until someone else believes in them first.

A boss once told me I was doing great. But I wasn’t. He knew it. More importantly, I knew it.

That not only made it hard to ask for ways I could improve, but when he did provide constructive feedback, it seemed odd.

I thought, “Why was he listing so many things I could do better when he just said I was great?”

A performance evaluation should accurately reflect performance, especially since reviews are often used to make promotion decisions.

Find other ways to motivate struggling employees besides puffing up their evaluations.

6. “Tell me how you would rate yourself.”

Asking employees to rate themselves is almost always a lose-lose proposition. Why?

  • A great employee who reviews themselves, formally or informally, and feels like they do a fabulous job is left wondering why you asked (and whether you’re too lazy to rate them yourself).
  • A struggling employee is unlikely to rate themselves as such. That self-appraisal can quickly turn a constructive discussion into an argument.

So don’t ask for informal self-evaluations during the meeting. The point of the meeting is to recognize accomplishments and discuss concrete ways your employee can achieve more—not to argue about whose opinion is right.

7. “While we’re here, can you think of any ways the business can improve?”

Employee evaluations are your employee’s “me time.” That means they should focus solely on the employee. Definitely ask if they’re having any problems you can solve. Definitely ask if they have the right tools to do the job.

As a leader, helping your employees succeed is your main mission.

But save all other discussions for another time.

8. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but…”

Here’s a rule of thumb: Any sentence that starts with “I probably shouldn’t tell you this…” is a sentence you probably shouldn’t say.

If you don’t have the information you need, say so—and follow up later.

It can be tempting to disclose sensitive information when you’re having a conversation, especially about other people. But don’t. Just be honest about your employee’s performance, and stop there.

9. “We might be able to make that happen.”

During the intensity of reviews, it can be tempting to make promises you can’t keep.

Effective appraisals review the past while looking to the future. So by all means share developmental or improvement plans, but keep in mind that when you say “possibly” your employee might hear “definitely.”

Manage expectations. For example, if your employee asks to spend time training with another person, don’t say, “That sounds like a good idea. We might be able to do that.” Say,

“That sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure if I can make that happen. Let me work on it and get back to you.”

If you aren’t 100% sure you can keep your promise, don’t say anything or emphasize that a potential opportunity is only a possibility.

10. “I’m not sure if we talked about this last time…”

Do you remember everything you said the last time you evaluated a particular employee?

Probably not. But your employee does.

Use the same examples and your employees will feel like you’re just going through the motions. Discuss the same opportunities and your employees will feel like you care about their career development.

Take notes after you deliver an evaluation:

  • Any concerns the employee raised, along with your responses
  • Your employee’s goals over the next evaluation period
  • Long-term goals your employee shared with you
  • Formal and informal development plans discussed
  • Action items: Both the employee’s, and your’s

Then review those notes, and the previous evaluation, before you sit down to evaluate your employees the next time. Not only will that make the next performance review more productive for your employee, it will help you do a better job reviewing them.

Performance evaluations can help develop both your employee and your skills as a manager.

While your main goal is to help your employee improve, you should also be working to improve your skill in delivering constructive, useful, and productive feedback.

In fact, the performance review process isn’t even about your employee at first. Really, it starts with you.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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