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How to Dish Out a Poor Performance Review

performance review

A poor performance review all too often signals the imminent end of employment. Is there a way to make it into the learning and motivational experience it should be — and for the employee to turn things around? The HT Group President Chad Macy says, “Yes!” (he’s seen it happen) and gave us some insights that can help. 

Read The Room

Like most employers, The HT Group put performance reviews on hold during the pandemic’s early stages. With so much turmoil both personally and professionally at play, it would have been impossible to gauge performance against “normal” circumstances. Employees have been burned out, drained and exhausted more than ever.

As the nation moves ahead, the Wall Street Journal reports employers are taking a gentler approach to evaluations. They’re “scrapping parts of their performance-management systems, like mid-year reviews and numeric ratings…lowering sales quotas and instituting a sort of performance-score inflation, urging bosses to avoid doling out that dreaded ‘does not meet expectations’ label.”

But don’t misread the evidence: Feedback is needed more than ever.

Employees working from home report a communication drought of epic proportions: Nearly 90% want more formal managerial feedback–not less–as they continue to work from home or within hybrid arrangements. What’s more, 25% of those employees who’d like more feedback don’t know how to request it. 

Don’t Blindside

A classic mistake is to make the annual or semi-annual news of the employee’s performance a shocking reveal. An employee’s response should never be, “I had no idea!”

“A poor performance review should never be a surprise,” says Macy. “If it is, we are failing that employee. The review should be a reflection back on conversations that have already happened. There should be conversations documented and a plan, like a performance improvement plan (PIP), already in place to improve the issues.”

To turn performance reviews into formal checkpoints more than big reveals, many employers use weekly one-on-ones. “This allows constant communication and constant feedback,” Macy adds. “The cumulative discussions from these one-on-ones usually drive the performance review.”

One-on-ones may seem like a no-brainer, but there’s an art to getting them right. Career Amp offers these 24 great one-on-one meeting questions, and 15Five has a checklist that can help. 

Be Transparent But Also Compliant

Another critical element of success is honesty and transparency. The best way to accomplish this feat is to be specific.

“Provide examples and data points to paint the picture of how someone is measured and how they are performing compared to targets or expectations,” says Macy.

Also, keep compliance in mind when considering how you document performance issues. With Texas being an employment-at-will state, statewide regulations aren’t harsh, but some behaviors can trigger federal laws on equal employment, discrimination, retaliation and the like. This article from SHRM summarizes many of the critical compliance concepts you should understand.

Welcome Feedback

How open are you to criticism and constructive feedback from the employee during the performance review process? Too often, performance reviews fail because it doesn’t include open, two-way communication as it should.

One-on-ones can be an opportunity to exchange that feedback, but what if the employee is uncomfortable being put on the spot or fears retaliation? Austin, Texas employee engagement company Workify offers alternative feedback ideas like employee pulse surveys for general employee consensus and 360-degree feedback surveys that involve peer reviews.

Offer A Roadmap

Macy recommends employees have individual development plans (IDPs) in place that includes areas the employee needs to improve and identifies training gaps that should be filled. These plans aren’t necessarily tied to performance issues. Rather, they can outline what the employee hopes to learn or grow into throughout their tenure.

PIPs, on the other hand, are put in place as part of performance assessments for the explicit purpose of necessary improvements. Take a look at some examples here. Both types of roadmaps are critical because they offer the employee concrete goals and timelines for achieving them. 

What’s The Prognosis?

Can a poorly performing employee turn things around? Yes, they can. Macy has seen it happen.

“I’ve watched employees turn it around and even be promoted to management later in their tenure working for me,” he says. “The key was their desire to fight for it. And the most common success factor was their attitude. When they realize that what they’re doing isn’t working, they buy-in and begin applying the training they received. They demonstrate a commitment to improvement.”

Then there are times that the performance review is a success in a non-traditional sense, he adds.

“I’ve had employees receive a poor performance review and finally come to the realization that, while they’re trying, they just can’t do the job,” he admits. “They may be a great culture fit in the organization, but the job just isn’t a match. Sometimes that results in moving an employee to a different role that’s better suited for their skillset. Other times, we mutually agree to part ways on good terms. These times can turn into the greatest achievements because, for a person to reach their full potential, they sometimes need to let go of what’s not working for them.”

The bottom line is to increase engagement. Doing so will eliminate that one big, dreaded poor performance review and instead turn it into a series of clear, consistent conversations and exercises for improvement. Communicate early and often, with clear and specific feedback (from both sides).


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