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Is It Okay To Bring It Up For The First Time On The Performance Appraisal?

I have a concern about one of my people’s performance, but I haven’t previously discussed it with him. Is it okay to bring it up for the first time on the performance appraisal?

The traditional rule is well known and is always explained to managers when they go through performance appraisal training programs: No surprises in the performance appraisal discussion.

That is generally good advice. But what should a manager do when—as so often happens—the requirement that a performance appraisal be prepared causes the manager to critically review that performance and realize, for the first time, that the performance is definitely in need of significant improvement? Frequently, the first time that the manager consciously realizes that there is a significant concern with the employee’s performance occurs when the manager must formally assess it.

Now the manager’s in a pickle. On one hand, the conventional wisdom says: No surprises. Any concerns about the quality and quantity of a person’s work should be discussed with that person during the course of the year and not delayed until appraisal time. It’s inappropriate—cruel—to blindside the individual by describing hitherto undisclosed problems on the appraisal form since the individual has no chance to correct those problems before they become matters of record.

On the other hand, it may be that the first time the manager is aware that there is a serious concern with Tom’s behavior and output occurs when she picks up the appraisal form and starts to write her assessment of Tom’s contribution. ‘‘I would have told him before this if I had been aware of it, but I only became aware of it when I started completing the appraisal form. Now what do I do?’’

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It’s easy to duck the issue by condemning the manager for not having been more sensitive to the deteriorating quality of Tom’s performance before the time for formal appraisal arrived. But that’s a cheap shot. One of the benefits of a formal performance appraisal program is that it forces managers, on at least an annual basis, to review how well each subordinate is doing and talk to the person about that assessment. Yes, of course it would be nice if these conversations happened well before appraisal time, and everyone had all the time required to improve their performance so that they could get stellar ratings on the form. But that is unrealistic.

The right answer is to go right ahead and record the unpleasant facts on the form, knowing that Tom will be dismayed and will complain about having these issues brought up to him too late to do anything about it. The manager in this situation should simply admit that Tom’s complaint is valid: She wishes she had been more aware of it earlier.

However, the fact that it would have been better to have discussed Tom’s problems earlier doesn’t take away the fact that those problems exist and are being brought to Tom’s attention as soon as they came to the manager’s notice. While it’s unfortunate that at the time they were noticed, the appraisal was being prepared, the alternative—giving Tom an inaccurate inflated review while telling him on the Q.T. that the review as written is a lie—is even worse. In the first case, the manager’s worst sin is being inattentive. In the latter, the manager admits to deceit.

It’s an easy temptation to rationalize giving the individual an inappropriately high rating with the hope that the discussion of the actual unacceptable performance will cause the individual’s efforts to rise to the level that was described in the form. This is unlikely. Instead, acknowledge that, while it would have been preferable to have discovered Tom’s deficiencies and brought them to his attention earlier, the manager is still doing exactly what she is being paid to do—to bring any performance concern to the individual’s attention as soon as it is discovered. That the time of discovery coincided with the time of performance appraisal doesn’t detract a whit from the fact that the manager is doing the right thing.