Effective Language for Performance Appraisals

Effective Language for Performance Appraisals
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The Difficulty with Performance Reviews

Managers (or supervisors) are generally charged with delivering the review. Unfortunately, they are also supremely busy with other tasks. As a consequence, it is difficult to make time to (a) draft the review, (b) set a time of uninterrupted one-on-one face time with the worker and (c) utilize highly effective language for performance appraisals that not only coaches the worker but also motivates and corrects the employee in the process. Even so, the savvy employer recognizes evaluations to be the most valuable tool available to take stock, develop benchmarks, and curb undesirable actions. The language used determines whether the worker truly ‘hears’ the meaning behind the supervisor’s words or whether trite terminology drowns out the overall message.

Bad and Good Terms

Avoiding clichés and trite terms is paramount. Even so, they are ingrained into the business environment and may be difficult to recognize. Consider this list of terms and their (more effective) counterparts.

  • Performance: The term denotes good or bad benchmark adherence. It lacks definition and therein lays its weakness. Choose “variance” instead. Variance points to a deviation from a desired benchmark. Variance can be a good thing (if the worker exceeds expectations) or a liability, such as when the worker falls short of reaching expected goals.
  • Improvement: A student with an A- average has room for improvement. The same holds true for a student with a D- GPA. It is another overly broad term that lacks definition. Opt for “meeting standards” instead. Standards imply the clear definition of benchmarks; they can be met, fallen short of, or exceeded.
  • Problematic or Excellent: These terms are highly subjective and discount measurable causes as well as physical, emotional or mental limitations. Adding insult to injury, today’s litigious society may unfavorably view a supervisor’s description of one worker’s performance as “excellent” while he refers to the similar performance of another worker as “problematic.” Carefully navigate this legally charged situation by denoting that a worker was “coached about negative variances” or “advised of repetitious standard adherence.”

The Secret Behind Successful Coaching

While effective language for performance appraisals rests on the absence of clichés, it also demands a careful approach to the process.

  • Replace disapproving phrases with evocative questions. For example, “what were you thinking” should be replaced with “please outline the steps leading up to your decision.”
  • Skip generalities and instead highlight specifics. Stevenson University(1) advises managers to use specific instances as teaching tools.
  • Follow a format when giving the evaluation. Standardize the use of terms (such as “variance”) so that all managers and supervisors are on the same page. Not only does this approach serve to streamline the evaluation process, but it also protects the company from lawsuits that allege preferential treatment. Stanley Malos, J.D., Ph.D.(2) urges managers to be mindful of liabilities related to negligence and defamation.

Employees look to performance evaluations as a means for getting ahead in their careers. They want to know what it takes to get promoted and also how to maintain a favorable worker rating. Employers must capitalize on these expectations with cutting-edge appraisals so as to advance the workforce.


  1. Stevenson University, Human Resources. Manager tips for effective performance, retrieved at https://hr.stevenson.edu/relations/appraisal/tips.cfm
  2. Malos, SB. Current legal issues in performance appraisal, retrieved at https://www.cob.sjsu.edu/facstaff/malos_s/bookchap.htm

Photo Credit:

“Employee Performance” by Employeeperformance/Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Employee_performance.jpg