By Steve Moran

He started his email with this:

I disagree with your premise that performance reviews are on par with newspapers and fish.

This was in response to my recent article titled “Performance Reviews Are Like Using Newspaper for Fish Wrap.” He makes some points worth consideration.

  1. Particularly in litigious states such as New Jersey, New York, Florida, Connecticut, and California, you cannot terminate an employee without proper documentation unless you want to invite lawsuits.
  2. An “in-the-moment” approach makes it way too easy for leaders, think department heads, to just let things that need to be addressed slide.
  3. It also can result in those same department heads not really paying attention to the positive moments.
  4. Ultimately, if there is no written documentation, you could very well end up in a situation where you think a department head is a great leader but is not, costing you unhappy team members.

I Had to Think About It Some More 

Here is how I responded to him:

The compliance part I had not really considered, but my question for you would be this: How do you meet that need without demoralizing team members? [Emphasis mine.]

Here are his thoughts:

How do I meet the need of team members for feedback without demoralizing them?

It’s not always possible. When the feedback is good it’s easy.

But the feedback is not always good. Sometimes you have to give constructive criticism. That is done most effectively in a meeting/conversation, but documentation is key.

If it isn’t in writing then it didn’t happen. That leaves you vulnerable if/when things get litigious.

Let me give you an example of how I would handle and escalate a continuing performance issue:

  1. Initial meeting – discuss what I’m seeing/hearing and give actionable feedback. Note or email to self (something that gets written documentation but I’m not flaunting it in the employee’s face so it feels informal but I’ve documented it.)

If this doesn’t work, then …

  1. A second meeting – more discussion and feedback, but this time I follow up with a note/email to them. This is likely to get their attention in a way the informal meeting did not.

If this doesn’t work, then …

  1. A third meeting where the outcome of the discussion is a written performance plan that both I and the employee are signing/acknowledging. At this point, they are very much on notice.
  2. If the issue continues, we’re likely heading toward separation at this point, but I’ve hopefully given the employee plenty of feedback and opportunities to improve while protecting the organization if/when you sue.

In short, there is information “in the file.”

He also included this in his first response, and I include it because it is important you know this extraordinary leader’s heart:

I have also experienced tears during performance reviews, but I’m happy to report that they’ve been due to joy. We do 360-degree reviews for supervisors and above. I’m fortunate to work with some extraordinary people. Often their 360s are glowing. Once I’ve allowed the reviewee to read the consolidated 360 comments, they are sometimes in tears because they get to hear firsthand how appreciated they are by their peers. That doesn’t happen in a 1:1 feedback session.

Final Thoughts

He and I are in agreement that systems and mechanisms need to be in place to document poor performance and celebrate heroes. In a small organization like mine, with less than 10 team members, we don’t need much formality. In a large organization like his, more formal systems are 100% needed.

At the end of the day, there needs to be a hybrid system that accomplishes both goals, and there is likely some art in figuring this all out.