Communicating Bad News for the First Time During the Annual Performance Review

September 8, 2015

annual performance review

Are you having trouble delivering bad news during your employee’s performance review? Author Paul Falcone shares his thoughts and recommendations as outlined in his recent book, coauthored with Winston Tan, The Performance Appraisal Tool Kit: Redesigning Your Performance Review Template to Drive Individual and Organizational Change (AMACOM 2013).

One of the toughest leadership tasks will always involve communicating problematic performance or conduct concerns for the first time during the annual performance review. After all, one of the key rules in issuing performance reviews is that there should be few if any surprises.  Communicating expectations and providing performance feedback is something that should be happening all year long—even all day long in a typical healthy working relationship.  Many companies formalize a mid-year or quarterly review process to ensure that workers are getting updated with regular feedback on a consistent basis so that the annual performance review is a culmination exercise—not an opportunity to spring new (and potentially surprising or disappointing) information on a subordinate to justify a substandard performance review score.

But even if it’s indeed intuitive “horse sense” that employees shouldn’t be blind-sided during the annual performance appraisal culmination exercise, it still happens. New managers on the scene often have differing expectations from prior leaders. Or current supervisors realize they’ve been permitting poor behavior or substandard performance for far too long, inflating grades for fear of upsetting or demotivating the individual, only to have Human Resources or a member of senior leadership instruct them to “put their foot down” and stop the behavior or address infractions once and for all. The annual review really serves in many ways as a hard stop wake-up call, a command to take an objective look at someone’s performance or behavior and provide accurate and sometimes difficult feedback. So it stands to reason that occasionally some new information may need to be interjected into the equation that addresses performance or conduct concerns.

If there’s new negative information that must be shared for the first time during the formal review (when it affects employees’ pay and becomes codified in their performance record), then they will likely feel that management is unfair and that they have been blindsided. And they’re not wrong for feeling that way: it’s generally considered the supervisor’s fault for not communicating more effectively by raising the issues at the time of occurrence.  Fair enough.  But it doesn’t mean that you can’t address those issues now—you just have to be forthcoming in the narrative about accounting for your lack of feedback in the past.  As such, your documentation should include some form of managerial mea culpa for not disclosing problematic issues in the past at the time of occurrence.  That’s a fair compromise.  But again, this should always be the exception, not the rule, and you’ll have to look to organizational past practices as well as collective bargaining agreement restrictions to see if this is a safe path to take.

Your Verbal Opener

Your opening discussion with the employee might sound something like this:

“Ted, my goal here isn’t to surprise you with new information introduced at the time of the annual review, but I’m afraid that’s necessary in this case because the issues have become detrimental to your reputation and to our ability to execute effectively as a team.  Before we begin walking through the details on the evaluation that I’ve prepared, I want you to know that you won’t be meeting expectations for this review period.  Again, I’m holding myself accountable for not sharing problematic issues with you at the time they occurred, but I’ll commit to you to bring problematic issues to your attention immediately in the future. However, it’s time to share our concerns formally in writing and set our expectations on a go-forward basis, and the annual review gives us that opportunity each year because it’s hard stop in terms of providing feedback and setting the record straight.”

If there’s any reason why you don’t feel this individual should or would still be employed by your company a year from now unless there’s marked improvement, then the pain of delivering a failed review now will be more than offset by the strong record you’re creating to justify termination down the road if things don’t turn around significantly.

Taking the Failed Performance Review to the Next Level by Incorporating Disciplinary Language

Managers often times don’t realize that they can include language in the review itself that turns the document into a written warning (i.e., a part of your organization’s progressive discipline system).  This again is not the norm:  typically you’ll want to allow the employee time to demonstrate improvement before issuing formal corrective action.  Yet a failed annual review could arguably be seen as a step of progressive discipline in and of itself, and by including disciplinary language from your corrective action policy, you can impress upon the employee the seriousness of the matter.  Union contracts, however, may not permit this, and as a general rule, you’ll want to check with your employment attorney about introducing this “twist” to your internal employment practices.

Assuming you opt to take the step of incorporating corrective action language into the annual review, you’ll be making this document a “two-for,” meaning that it will serve as both a substandard annual performance review and as a written warning.  Your written narrative might sound something like this:

“Several of the issues and concerns outlined in this performance review were not addressed at the time they occurred during the performance period.  However, that does not detract from their significance.  In preparing for this review and in reviewing the documentation with human resources and departmental leadership, we determined that your position is now in serious jeopardy of being lost. 

“Therefore, in addition to documenting that your overall performance for this review period does not meet company expectations, this annual appraisal will also serve as a formal written warning.  Failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary language up to and including dismissal.” 

Yes, this arguably sounds harsh and isn’t an easy message to deliver.  But it’s not enough to say, “Surprises should never happen during the performance review,” and end the story there.  Surprises should be the exception, not the rule, but occasionally issues like this surface at the time performance feedback discussions are under way.  It’s never easy to issue a document that’s going to be permanently codified in the individual’s personnel file.  But occasionally, and with agreement from your senior leadership team as well as human resources, this type of advanced strategy may be necessary to correct the record and reset future expectations.

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Delivering bad news can be a tough conversation. Learn all the tools you need to handle every situation with these AMA resources and seminars:

About The Author

Paul Falcone is a human resources executive in Los Angeles and has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner. He is the author of a number of AMACOM and SHRM bestselling books, four of which made SHRM's prestigious "Great 8" list: 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, and 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. His latest AMACOM book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees, was released in 2016. Follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulFalconeHR and his website and blog at

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