Performance Evaluations

By Ron Ciancutti

One of the most difficult tasks expected of management is the end-of-the-year evaluation. Do you say too much? Do you say too little? Do you inadvertently offend the employee with a casual remark that you had no intention of uttering?


It happens all the time. I’ve written comments in performance evaluations that have downright haunted me and the employee because he brought it up for years. These episodes made me so gun-shy I was almost afraid to write anything after that.

For many years, though, I thought “more was more.” I filled the evaluation form with plenty of remarks and even wrote in the margins, thinking it meant I cared and was focused on helping that employee perform at a high level.

Now and then, however, I think I overwhelmed a few people by being too attentive and expecting too much.  Now I have learned to economize my words.

Awkward Moments
Early in my career, I finished a session with a staff member who I thought was under-performing and capable of much more. He smiled, seemed to appreciate the support, and suddenly broke into tears. “How in the world am I ever going to do all that stuff you expect?”

Oops—overload. Misjudged.

On the other hand, there were some employees who were so task-oriented that when I gave them a list of goals for the year, they kept handing me versions of that list all year with each item crossed out as they completed it.

As if this were some career scavenger hunt, and when they crossed off all of the items on the list, they won their annual raise. This was another miscue on my part.

I’ve also had sessions that became too personal. An employee may be going through some big event in life like a divorce or a new baby, so when finally in a one-on-one session with someone who is truly interested in how he or she is doing, it all comes pouring out.

Not a good idea by any means. In fact, I have discovered the best solution for these situations is to talk through the problem and then reschedule the evaluation for another day.

I’ve even been bribed by people who walk into the evaluation with bakery, pastry, or game tickets they “just can’t use.” I’ve accepted none of the offerings, even if the employee was to be evaluated favorably.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve made a fair share of mistakes on my own evaluations. One time my supervisor scheduled an evaluation at 7 a.m., even though I had been driving a snow plow all night. He invited me to meet in his office after I cleaned up.

Tugging off a couple layers of clothes, I went into his office where a space heater was pointed directly at me. Almost immediately after he began the session, I fell asleep sitting up. Whether it was the long night, the heat, or whatever, I was out like a light.

One of my rather elaborate snores jolted me upright, and I saw him sitting there, smiling … and writing furiously.  We rescheduled but I think I lost a few points there, so be sure to write that one down. No sleeping during your evaluation.

An Honest Evaluation
People think poor evaluations are difficult for the employee. You have no idea how tough they are on the evaluator. When I have to tell someone he or she is not making the grade and that my words will likely be rejected, it is an uncomfortable situation.

I’ve had to fire a few people during my years in management, and that action feels terrible. Sometimes the employee knows it is coming and makes it easy, but sometimes the heels are dug in, making for a difficult situation.

One man simply started begging. His wife, the kids, car payments, mortgage—how could I do this to him? Staying with my decision in a situation like this is critical, but so difficult.

One of my methods—if I suspect this type of reaction—is to already have some suggestions for what the employee’s strengths are and perhaps provide him or her with a phone number or two that might yield a good match.

One fellow was downright counterproductive because he would stop and talk throughout the job. I had a friend who worked in a meat-packing plant, and the employee took my lead and applied there immediately after he was let go.

Last year around Christmas, my wife and I were in a local butcher shop and sure enough, he had advanced to a job behind the counter where he talked (and talked) to people all day. That particular decision had a happy ending.

In all, I have found that honesty is the best policy. Most people about to receive a poor evaluation know their strengths and weaknesses. They simply want to obtain the supervisor’s viewpoint.

However, there are several legal implications these days, so I try the “Pat Summerall treatment” when addressing these issues. Summerall was a former NFL football player and sports broadcaster who had a great economy with words.

During one game he was calling in the mid-1980s, famed San Francisco receiver Jerry Rice went airborne for a catch, and when he hit the turf he bobbled the ball several times before securing it in his big left hand.

The other commentator was going crazy, yelling “left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand, AND HE COMES DOWN WITH IT!” Summerall sat quietly until it was his turn to speak and then simply said, “That guy … should have been a waiter.”

So with that approach in mind—I just try to be honest and direct. It is so much easier before, during, and after the evaluation. For example:

“You are late at least once a week. I have copies of your time cards right here.”

“You need to proofread your work. Here are three essays where you got sloppy and didn’t check. You have to submit final draft work!”

“Sometimes I question your dedication when you take vacation days during peak challenges at work. Other staff members seem to resent it, too.”

“You gossip too much and too often about the other employees.”

See how direct the first sentence is? There’s plenty of time to stroke the ego later. These are the issues you want to address, so say them.

Be clear. Be concise. And be gone.

Try to remember an evaluation is used to keep an employee on track. If you obscure the results or refuse to say what needs to be said, he or she will not improve. You were selected to be a supervisor. Don’t take that duty lightly.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at