Delivering Bad News during the Annual Performance Appraisal

December 5, 2014

Delivering bad news at performance review time is one of the toughest challenges that front-line managers and executive leaders face every year.  No one wants to judge anyone else, the potential for confrontation and drama runs high, and let’s face it—the path of least resistance is avoidance.  Therefore, many managers try to avoid uncomfortable discussions all year long. However, the annual review often serves as a filter or strainer that forces discussion and engagement.

We know intuitively that surfacing new information at the time of the annual review should be the exception and should be avoided at all costs. That’s not fair to the employee and could make even the most level-headed worker feel blindsided or taken advantage of.  However, if there’s a serious conduct issue that’s interrupting workplace operations, then you may just find yourself in the uncomfortable predicament of having to address and document a significant behavioral problem or shortfall that’s killing teamwork and camaraderie in your department—even though you haven’t discussed it yet one-on-one during the previous year.

If you’re in the unfortunate situation of having to fail someone due to inappropriate workplace conduct, then you’ll need to admit your shortcomings as well.  After all, if you, as the manager, haven’t raised the issue until now, that’s a shortcoming on your part—no doubt about it.  Then again, you can’t over-inflate the overall performance review score if the employee failed to meet minimum standards in a critical area like conduct or behavior (AKA attitude).  Here’s how you might address the situation both verbally and in writing during the review process:

A Verbal Mea Culpa

Anne, I recognize that we haven’t formally discussed your relationships with me and with the rest of the team over the past year or even six months, but I felt it appropriate to bring this issue to your attention during the annual performance review because it’s so serious and such a critical aspect of your overall contribution to the department that it will continue to have a significant impact on your career potential.  I also owe you an apology: I realize that I should have shared this with you at the time these incidents occurred, but I was guilty of avoiding the confrontation myself and hoping the problem would simply fix itself, and that wasn’t fair to you.

That being said, I can’t avoid the issue any longer, and I see this as so significant to your career potential with our organization that I have to address it now during your annual review—even though I realize that you may feel blindsided by my doing so. 

Specifically, I believe you’re suffering from a perception management problem: Regardless of your intentions, people tend to avoid you.  You come across as being angry much of the time, confrontational and condescending, and people—myself included—tend to cut a wide swatch around you and do the work themselves rather than come to your for help.  That’s damaging the overall sense of morale and camaraderie in our department, Anne, and you’re responsible for creating a friendly and inclusive work environment, just like I am and everyone else on our team is.

In short, your behavior is negating your performance contributions.  I’ll make a commitment to you now to bring these matters to your attention immediately whenever I notice them in the future, but my main message to you now during this performance review is that you’re not meeting company expectations overall because of this significant detriment.  Again, I apologize for not addressing the matter on the spot in the past, and I’ll commit to you that I’ll bring this to your attention whenever I see it from now on.  But it’s significant enough to formally document now and to reset expectations going forward . . .

Your written documentation in the review itself will reflect much of what you stated above.  Yes, you have to admit your failure in not having shared your concerns throughout the review period and for having to surprise the individual at the time of the annual performance review.  But while surprises of this sort should always be the exception, not the rule, if the issue is significant enough to impact the worker’s overall score and fail them for the review year, then fess up, say you’re sorry for not doing your part, and hold them accountable nonetheless.  To do anything less wouldn’t be fair to you, the rest of your team, or even to the individual involved.

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Delivering bad news is one of the many skills required as a manager. Master them all 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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    […] comments on the evaluation, even when justified. For the evaluation to be effective, the evaluator must be candid about the employee’s strengths and […]

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