12 Absolutely Classic Performance Review Fails

Performance reviews are usually really terrible.

The annoyance of traditional employee reviews (or assessments, evaluations, appraisals, whatever you want to call them) is familiar to most of us. These corporate staples don’t fit the way we work today, especially in the creative economy:

Fortunately, it looks like we finally hit an inflection point in recent years, with many leading companies dismantling their outdated review processes. Feedback is getting more frequent and more relevant, and not a moment too soon.

Let’s look at twelve classic flubs of performance reviews, and how you can correct them. Have you ever sat through—or given—one of these?


1. The “So Good It’s No Good” review

In this review, the manager gives the employee a totally glowing evaluation, with no indication that the employee could improve in any manner.

If you’re doing a great job, you might agree with that assessment, but you probably have a sneaking suspicion that, if pressed, your manager could think of at least one thing you could do better.

And if you know you’re not putting your all into the job and still get a 10/10, it’ll be clearer than ever that the review is a farce—and you won’t be motivated to step up your game.

The fix: Take a deep breath and give the employee honest feedback on how she can improve. Don’t make up problems (of course), but don’t gloss over a performance issue just to avoid awkwardness or confrontation.

Employees will appreciate the corrective feedback, as shown by research from Zenger Folkman:

A significantly larger number (57%) [of respondents] preferred corrective feedback; only 43% preferred praise/recognition.

In the same study, most employees also said corrective feedback would help them do better work:

When asked what was most helpful in their career, fully 72% said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.


2. The Short-Term Memory review

In this review, the employee senses that her boss didn’t spend more than a minute or two thinking back on the reality of her performance over the last period (whether a quarter, six months, or a year). Instead, the manager runs the review based on whatever occurs to him. He provides a couple of superficial comments about recent events—perhaps citing an error made in the previous week but losing track of key achievements from months ago.

The fix: Set up clear objectives/measures at the beginning of a review period, and then revisit those in the review, being sure to encompass the whole review period. It also helps, of course, to have weekly check-ins with the employee, record key points, and then review those notes before and during the review.


3. The “Blink and It’s Over” review

Here the employee sits down expecting a discussion and instead gets little more than a blip. The manager speeds through the procedure, offering a few rote comments. It’s apparent that the goal of the review, in the manager’s mind, has little to do with the employee and everything to do with ticking HR boxes. Once you’ve both signed the review, you’re hustled out—and that’s that.

(A variation of this review is the Small Talk review, where the manager spends 90 percent of the allotted time regaling the employee with stories of his golf game and the latest achievements of his six-year-old genius.)

The fix: Understand that this is an important meeting for the employee—they feel that a lot rides on it—so give it time and attention. Rushing through at hyperspeed might be a temporary relief for everyone, but it will likely cause disengagement in the long term


4. The Kafkaesque review

“I’ve heard comments that . . .”—nobody wants to hear that, but in the Kafkaesque review, this type of statement dominates. The boss’s oddly critical tone is paired with vagueness on the source of the criticism. The employee ends up feeling like he’s on trial for an unknown crime, prosecuted by unnamed parties.

Some employees will actively push back, asking for specific examples, or who’s made the comments. In the Kafkaesque review, such requests are met with blank stares and evasion.

Yes, employees want corrective feedback, but this is the exact wrong kind.

The fix: When you deliver criticism in a review, make sure it’s objective, and back it up with a clear example. Then, follow up with advice on how the employee can adjust in the future. Never deliver hearsay criticism unless you’ve done the appropriate investigation.


5. The Eager Bureaucrat review

We all know an Eager Bureaucrat, the person whose eyes light up at the sight of intricate paperwork, and who seems to think that fastidious adherence to procedure is a life-and-death matter. He’s never met a hoop he didn’t want to jump through. Red tape is his lifeline. And his performance reviews are a living nightmare: never-ending, pointless, tedious, devoid of any tangible value.

The fix: 
Even if you have a paperwork fetish (or if complex HR procedures are imposed on you from above), keep the prime objective of the review top of mind at all times: your purpose is to help the employee improve his/her performance.

If a certain measure feels irrelevant, reroute discussion to the true performance of the employee, and what it means for the team and company.


6. The “You Do All the Work” review

In this type of review, the employee labors over a long review form, rating herself on multiple scales and penning substantial written responses about her own strengths and weaknesses (essentially anticipating what her manager will say).

During the in-person review, the boss parrots back the employee’s points and agrees with everything. What was the point of that? the employee thinks as she walks back to her desk.

The fix: If your employee will do a self-eval, make sure you complete your own written review before you look at hers. Then, be sure to cover agreements and disagreements between the two in your meeting.


7. The Obvious Oreo review

Inauthenticity is one of the bugbears of traditional performance management. A great way to make a review feel inauthentic is to artlessly deploy the Oreo method of feedback, which is, as you probably know, to sandwich criticism between two pieces of praise. It’s also known less politely as the Shit Sandwich.

In this kind of review, the manager wields the popular Oreo mechanism with no finesse. The employee rolls his eyes: he can hear the transitions from cookie to cream and back to cookie as if he had the script in front of him.

The fix: Augment corrective feedback with positive reinforcement, but do it in a way that feels natural to you. In this post, Ben Horowitz offers some useful tips for using the Shit Sandwich without being too obvious about it.


8. The Punitive review

At their worst, performance reviews feel like adult report cards. And when you get Cs and Ds, you’re naturally going to feel punished. After a Punitive review—especially if you think it’s unwarranted—you feel like you just got scolded by your mom or dad. You go back to work resentful, without any helpful takeaways, and less motivated to give your best effort. It won’t be appreciated anyway.

(A variant of the Punitive review is the Definitely Unfair review, where you get raked over the coals but then your goof-off colleague goes in for his review and you hear laughter, light conversation, and accolades through the door.)

The fix: When you sit down to prepare for a review where you’ll be delivering a largely negative message, get in a peer-to-peer mindset, not a superior-subordinate mindset. Yes, you serve a critical role as this person’s manager, but you have a key goal—to improve performance—and it’s not best achieved by condescension, purposeless faultfinding, or judgment based on personal preference.

Keep in mind that one single frustrating review can do a lot of damage. According to Harvard Business School professor Robert Pozen, “employees reacted to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they reacted to a positive interaction.”


9. The Totally Inconsequential review

This kind of review grows from goal-setting dysfunction. If performance goals don’t reflect actual business priorities—if they’re just hastily set targets created because, well, we need something to measure, right?—when review time rolls around, the discussion will feel Totally Inconsequential.

The employee finds himself discussing how his goal to reorganize the file cabinet went, and that has equal weight with (or worse, completely replaces) other goals and initiatives that represent the real value he adds to the team and company.

The fix: Align employee goals with the goals of the larger company—aiming to give them “line of sight.” Then, in the review, keep discussion focused on meaningful outcomes achieved by the employee in the review period. Remember: you’re working with the employee to figure out how he or she can best help the organization get the right things done. You’re not just setting up a few goals/metrics so you can give the employee a rating.


10. The Rear-View review

The word review implies retrospection, and indeed, most reviews are centered on performance in the recent past. But the Rear-View review cuts off sharply in the present, ignoring coaching opportunities and the employee’s aspirations for future development.

In the Rear-View review, the manager in effect says, “There’s what you did well and here’s what you didn’t do so well. Do with that information what you will. We’ll talk again in six months.”

Not very helpful.

The fix:

(1) Make sure you give feedforward coaching, as described in this post by Marshall Goldsmith. Don’t just tell the employee what you see in their past performance; be explicit with suggestions for strengthening their strengths and mitigating weak spots in the future.

(2) Use the review as a time to explicitly ask the employee about their aspirations for the future. Show that you care about their growth as a professional, and explore what that might mean going forward in terms of learning opportunities or new responsibilities.


11. The “Am I Invisible?” review

You know how unsettling it is when someone just won’t look you in the eye? It’s even worse in performance reviews, where the employee’s reading of body language is in overdrive. In the “Am I Invisible?” review, the employee walks out with a much stronger impression of how you spoke (eyes cast down or over their shoulder) than of what you said.

The fix: Aim to be present and relaxed in the review, and build a connection by making frequent eye contact. Otherwise, the employee is likely to pick up on evasiveness or negativity in the interaction.


12. The Nonexistent review

Performance reviews usually suck, but that doesn’t mean you can just drop them wholesale. In companies where compliance with the review process isn’t tracked or enforced, it can be tempting to let them slide (they’re such a pain anyway, right?).

However, because reviews are typically the most formal and systematic way an employee gets feedback and one-on-one recognition, they remain an important feature of management. Citing Gallup research, Tom Rath and Donald Clifton write:

The number-one reason most Americans leave their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated. In fact, 65% of people surveyed said they got no recognition for good work last year.

Performance reviews are the perfect venue for giving that recognition, as well as the feedback we already established employees want.

The fix: Do reviews frequently and on time. And if you manage managers, ensure that they do the same with their teams. A quarterly review cadence, supplemented by frequent manager-employee check-ins, is a good goal for most organizations.


Khorus can help every manager in your organization level-up their reviews. Move from old-school, demotivating performance reviews to feedback that’s fast, frequent, and relevant.