Most of us were raised with the old saying, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all." That expression is still true even when writing performance evaluations. After all, when an employee believes that you don't like him or that he can't do anything right, he is unlikely to try to improve, whereas an employee who is told that he excels in some areas but still has some flaws will likely strive to do better. That's why it is so important to pay attention to exactly how you word a performance evaluation.

The Challenge of Performance Reviews

Performance evaluations, also known as employee reviews or appraisals, are often unpopular with both the employees receiving them and the managers putting them together. However, they are still an important tool in letting employees understand how they are performing and how they can better help the company. Although face-to-face praise or criticisms are certainly useful on a daily basis, formal reviews can give both the manager and the employee something concrete at which they can look back.

Of course, it's easy enough to write a positive employee review of a nearly perfect employee, but since almost everyone has something necessary on which to work, the challenge lies in encouraging productivity and keeping up morale while still expressing the company's needs. You need to extol your employees' virtues while also fairly critiquing their problem areas with constructive criticism.

Types of Employee Evaluations

There are as many different ways to assess employees as there are ways to grade students in school. Some companies use percentage systems, some use letter grades, some use scores of one through five, some have a written question and answer format and some leave things completely open ended and use no formal grading system at all.

If your company already has a system in place, you already have a head start. Otherwise, you'll need to select a system. Whatever you choose, make sure it is fair and consistent for all employees.

Regardless of how the employees are scored, most performance reviews will focus on six fundamental components:

  • communication skills
  • problem-solving abilities
  • quality and accuracy of work
  • collaboration skills and teamwork
  • attendance, reliability and dependability
  • ability to meet deadlines and goals

When writing your review, focus on company-specific goals such as how the employee aligns with company culture and the business's mission statement, position-specific competencies related to him actual job and notable achievements or growth over the evaluation period.

Positive Performance Evaluation Example

Positive performance review examples often suggest offering something on which the employee can work. However, if an employee is doing an excellent job and you don't see anything to critique, don't force it. It is better to be totally positive than to include a criticism solely for the purpose of giving her something to improve.

Try to avoid generic words like "good," "bad," "excellent" and "nice" and instead use more descriptive terms like "dynamic," "functional," "effective" and "efficient." Here is a helpful example of a positive review:

"Susan is a responsive server and exceeds all expectations. She has a positive attitude, smiles while talking to customers and is quick to offer a recommendation when appropriate. When the restaurant is at its busiest, she readily adapts to the pressure, and she is flexible when problems arise."

"When things are slow, she seeks out additional responsibilities and remains very detail oriented no matter how busy the floor. Susan works well by herself when necessary but also has effective communication with other team members when needed."

Middle of the Road Review and Example

When searching for somewhat critical employee evaluation examples online, you'll often notice that the writers always start out with something positive. That's because people are more responsive to criticism if they feel their hard work has been noticed as well. It's generally a good idea to incorporate a "compliment sandwich" when possible, starting and ending with something positive to say about the employee. For example:

"Donald meets all expectations when it comes to helping customers, but his communication with other employees leaves something to be desired. He adapts well to client demands and difficult situations, such as the transition to the new phone system. Unfortunately, his time management skills could use a little work, as he often leaves customers on hold for five minutes or more while trying to focus on fixing a minor problem for a client who came in person.

"Donald maintains a positive attitude no matter how stressful the situation, and his ability to always please his customers makes him a likely candidate for a promotion to the elite-level customer service department."

Negative Employee Review Examples

Poor performance reviews are some of the most difficult to write because it can be difficult to be constructive and maintain employee morale while still expressing that the employee needs to step up his work. It is important to use language that focuses on growth in order to keep things as positive as possible. Again, try to open with something positive when possible.

Never put in threats such as pay cuts or loss of employment, as these are likely to demotivate an employee rather than encourage him to try harder. Here are two critical performance appraisal examples: one you should try to mimic and one you should try to avoid.

A Helpful Employee Appraisal

"Donna can be a very effective leader at times while performing her duties as a shift manager. However, she is frequently late and this reduces the amount of time she can spend doing her job. Additionally, she has a tendency to spend time casually chatting with other employees, making their time less productive.

"We would like to see Donna focus more on her attendance and on conducting herself with a more professional attitude when speaking to employees, clocking in on time and limiting conversations to those relevant to the work at hand."

Note that the review starts out on a positive note and ends with suggestions for how Donna can improve her work.

An Unhelpful Performance Review

"John is always distracted and never meets project deadlines. He is unhelpful when speaking to clients and doesn't bother writing adequate notes."

First, never use hyperbole or rude language, as these can put up employee defenses, making them walled off from your criticism and unlikely to grow. Second, be specific. How is John unhelpful? Finally, offer suggestions for how he can improve: John should prioritize tasks in the day to help eliminate distractions and follow our guide in order to ensure he takes adequate notes.

Tips for Writing Employee Reviews

It's important to remember that most employees want to do a good job, but no one responds well to being told they are no good. When offering critiques, try to use objective and growth-based language and avoid hyperbole. Remember that it's better to offer solutions than to simply say someone isn't good enough.

It can be difficult to get started when writing performance reviews, so a good starting place can be the employee's job description or a self-evaluation from the employee stating what she thinks she does well and what she could improve. While writing your reviews, try to avoid comparing employees to one another. Remember that while one employee may seem less productive than your top-performing employee, she may still be far exceeding general expectations.

Finally, while performance evaluations can be unpleasant to complete, they do help guide an employee toward success. It can be particularly difficult to review an employee's performance over a long period of time than just a few months. With that in mind, try to conduct reviews regularly, not just once a year, and keep the timing consistent because evaluations should not come as a surprise. This should give your employees a chance to see their hard work pay off if they try to follow through with your suggestions.