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Make Your Performance Reviews Frank, Positive, and Specific


“It is always the best policy to speak the truth, unless of course you are an exceptionally good liar.” – Jerome K. Jerome (The Idler, February 1892)

In “The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book,” Dick Grote recommends that companies change the nomenclature for describing “mid-level” performance ratings so that they don’t seem like such a “slap in the face.”

“Competent” and “meets expectations,” he argues, may accurately describe the performance of certain employees — but if you put it that way, they will have bad feelings about it.

Grote’s solution? Put it a different way: “Good, solid performer” is the suggestion.


Say “competent” when you mean “competent.” Being a “good, solid performer” involves something more than just being competent. Say that, and an employee who’s just getting by will think he’s doing just fine.

The primary purpose of a performance review is to tell an employee how he is doing — hence, the term. Yes, you want to have him respond in a positive way, but you can do that — or you should be able to do that — without distorting the truth, which is exactly what polishing up your words will do.

There are better ways to point out an employee’s shortcomings and motivate him to make improvements at the same time.

* Begin by identifying something or several things that the employee has done well. Be specific. Tell him how these good actions positively affected the business and why you appreciate them. You might even ask him to explain how he accomplishes what he does, to give him a chance to dwell on his good behavior and begin to take pride in it.

* Then tell him your complaints. Again, be as specific as you can. Try not to generalize. As you did with the positive acknowledgements, tell him in what way his undesirable behavior affects the business and why you don’t like it.

* Explain that these negative behaviors have resulted in an overall rating of “competent” (or whatever). Tell him that you understand he may not be happy with a “competent” rating and that you are pleased to know that he feels that way.

* Finally, suggest several specific things he can do within a given period of time to improve his performance. (If he’s not interested in changing, you should put him on your “to-fire” list.)

* Consider asking him to rate himself and give him three choices, one of which is “competent.” Most times, you’ll find that an employee will give himself the very rating he would resent hearing you ascribe to him. In any case, you can use his answer as a jumping-off point for a discussion of his specific strengths and weaknesses.