How to Write an Employee Evaluation for an Under Performer

Posted by on Tuesday 16 Nov 2010

Frank stared through me at the blank whiteboard behind me in the conference room as I delivered the performance review. I could tell he wasn’t engaged with what I was saying and didn’t really comprehend my comments. He kept insisting that I was mistaken, that his performance was better than his co-workers, and that I just didn’t know what I was talking about.

Writing and delivering an employee performance evaluation for an under-performer is a difficult task for any manager. The key to writing any performance review is to be honest and provide balance in your comments, striving to focus on areas of strength and improvement. A low performance employee may not understand where they are lacking or understand how to improve. In the performance review process, it’s important to explain specifically the problem areas and put together a plan to address these concerns.

Be Honest & Candid With Your Feedback

First, be honest and candid with your feedback – but not to the point that your feedback feels like it is “piling on” or that it appears you have a personal problem with the employee. The purpose of the performance review is to evaluate several areas of the employee and being very honest, open, and candid with the employee is the best way to handle it. When I have an under-performer on my team, I always let my boss or a neutral third party read the performance evaluation to ensure I am saying things the right way.

Sandwich your negative comments so the employee doesn’t feel crushed by the weight of a negative review. For example, here’s one way to identify a problem with an employee showing up late to work:

Jack is consistently late to work. He has a problem showing up on time and when he does arrive, he takes 30 minutes getting coffee and talking to his co-workers before getting to his desk to work. Jack must improve his attendance or disciplinary action will be taken.

Instead, sandwich your comments in this form,

Positive Comment
Area of Improvement
Specific Steps to Improve

For Jack’s attendance problem, the review comment might look like this:

When Jack is engaged in his work, he can be a very effective member of our team. Unfortunately, there is too often a time when Jack is late to work and not fully engaged until an hour into the workday. Over the next 3 months, we’d like Jack to focus on his attendance, be on time each day and ready to work at 8:00, and be the effective team member we require.

As you can see, we make a positive comment about Jack being an effective member of the team. We discuss what the problem is – Jack is often late and then when he gets here, he doesn’t start work until an hour into the workday. Finally, we address what Jack needs to do to comply with the rules.

Sandwiching your comments provides the employee the model of what they should be doing, what they’re doing wrong, and how to improve his performance.

Focus on Areas of Strength and Weakness

Each employee has areas of strengths and weaknesses. If the employee has no strengths, the annual performance time is not the time to bring this to light – he should be let go for both of your sakes before the annual review. In the annual performance evaluation, you are provided an opportunity to review the strengths and weaknesses the employee has to offer. If you don’t focus on both of these areas, you’re short changing an opportunity for your employee.

It’s a fad in management techniques to try to improve your employee’s weaknesses to match their strengths, but in actual practice, who can be that perfect? If you’re the type of person that hates numbers, focusing too much energy on an employee’s weakness in the area of accounting is probably a mistake – unless the employee is an accountant! As a manager, you want to help an employee work on their areas of weakness to improve those to the range of ‘functional’ while building up their strengths to the level of ‘excellence.’ Do not get these two mixed up!

When you put together a plan for improvement, spend your energy on helping the employee reach excellence with their strengths and improve their weaknesses to a level where they aren’t a detriment to your team.

Craft an Improvement Plan for the Under Performing Employee

It’s too often that I consult with a team where the manager has an under performing team but no plan for improvement. Usually, she has a bunch of excuses for why her team isn’t producing, but doesn’t see the problem is with her. Almost all of the high performing teams I work with are not a team of ivy league MBAs, but instead a group of imperfect humans who understand that they are not perfect, compensate for each others’ weaknesses, and capitalize on the strengths of the team. In the performance review, you will identify a number of areas that the employee is weak in, a number of areas they are strong in, and finally, help the employee create a plan for improvement – for both the strengths and the weaknesses.

The employee must be involved with the planning process to achieve the most potential. If the employee has buy-in – feels ownership of the plan – she will work harder to achieve the goals than if she was simply handed an improvement plan.

The plan should identify at least three strengths and three weaknesses the employee should work on over the next year (or other time period in between reviews). The plan should identify 5 things the employee will do to improve that area. For example, if an employee is strong in customer service, these might be the five items he will do to improve customer service (to make it even stronger!):

  1. Attend a customer service excellence class.
  2. Train 4 team members on how to handle difficult customers.
  3. Mentor one team member on improving his customer service.
  4. Examine and edit the telephone call recording review procedures to focus more on customer needs.
  5. Join the customer surveying team to help design follow up questionnaires.

If, on the other hand, the employee was weak in customer service and wanted to improve, here are 5 things he might do over the next year:

  1. Attend a customer service training class.
  2. Work with a more experienced customer service mentor on the team.
  3. Review calls with my supervisor once per week for improvement suggestions.
  4. Participate in outbound customer service surveying calls.
  5. Sit as a call reviewer with team leads to listen to how they perform on the phone.

The improvement plan must be well thought out and agreed to by both you and the employee. Some of the goals should be measured,  e.g. attending a customer service training class – it can be measured – did the employee attend or not?

After reviewing the evaluation with Frank, he did eventually see the problems I focused on and understand how he had performed in the previous year. We worked together on a performance improvement plan and today he is one of the highest performers on that team.

Though writing a performance review for an under performing employee can be difficult, seeing the employee improve to become a valued member of the team is worth the time invested.

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