Giving a performance review for an underperformer can be a tough proposition. You want to bring the poor behavior to the employee's attention so she can correct it, yet you don't want to punish the employee or discourage her from improving. Phrasing for negative reviews strikes a balance between tact and fact-based evidence.

For Every Negative, Give a Positive

Employees are judged by many criteria, so even if a worker does poorly in one area, he may still do relatively well in others. Your review can tackle different job dimensions and how the employee handles each skill set, noting which aspects are negative while simultaneously acknowledging positive attributes. For a negative review on the problem-solving dimension, you might say, "John repeats mistakes and does not seem to learn from failure" but then applaud his customer service skills and ability to "consistently receive high marks from satisfied customers."

Demonstrate the Impact on the Team

Jobs aren't just about technical skill sets, but also soft skills and attitudes that are desirable by a company. When a worker performs poorly on these latter skills, it can be helpful to back up seemingly abstract comments with either a remark about its impact on the workplace or a suggestion for change. "Edith frequently changes her mind" can be supplemented with "This can have a negative effect on the team." Or "Doug seems to have some difficulties with managers outside of his team, and he should work on getting these resolved."

Discussing Methods of Improvement

When pointing out undesirable performance, frame your negative performance review phrases in the context of constructive criticism. Start with the purpose of your talk, such as "I have a concern about your interactions with others." Then point to a specific observation, such as "Yesterday at the meeting, you interrupted Ms. Brewster and made disparaging remarks during her presentation." Follow with the reaction, such as: "Ms. Brewster looked embarrassed, and I felt insulted." Grounding your observations in fact makes them much easier for the recipient to understand.

Give the person a chance to respond: "Any thoughts on that?" End the discussion with concrete suggestions, such as "Being part of a team means being able to listen to different viewpoints." Your suggestions should include specific proposals for additional training where necessary.

Borrow and Rephrase from the Positive

The University of Wisconsin Office of Human Resource Development notes that a good performance review and a bad one aren't necessarily all that different: By changing which words you emphasize, you can essentially take the same core content and rephrase, as appropriate. Thus, for a negative review of delegating tasks to subordinates, you can recycle the same key phrases from a positive review of that particular skill set to say, "Dagmar needs to work on her delegation of routine tasks to improve her managerial effectiveness."