BLUF: I’ve been coaching a struggling direct all year, and giving plenty of positive feedback when she makes advances. She’s done everything I’ve asked her to do during this long process, and I was set to give her an average rating at year end. However HR just (LAST WEEK!) published new guidelines for year end reviews, and even though she’s made progress this year, she’s going to end up with a lower rating than she had last year, based on these new guidelines. I need advice on how to present this to her in a way that won’t break her spirit.

I’ve been manager of a great mid-sized for one year, and was promoted from within the team (in large part thanks to the skills learned at MT!). This particular person has been with the team for 4 years, and in my view has struggled the whole time. And her struggles are not just internal – her response to stress typically involves histrionics of one sort or another, and during my first few months as manager I had 5 or 6 people come to me and request not to work with her in the future. It was bad. I spent a lot of time with her this year, coaching her on some of the very basic aspects of her role - the kind of stuff that someone at half her salary should be able to come in and do with minimal hand holding. We’ve also dealt with her temper tantrums and started to rebuild some of the professional relationships that were scarred by her prior behavior. She’s making progress and pulling a turnaround. I’m proud of her, but there’s still a looong way to go.
Historically, our year end review process has us matching roughly to a curve where the top few get “Exceeds Expectations”, the vast majority get “Meets Expectations”, and the bottom few get “Needs Improvement”. Based on this rating system, she was getting “Meets Expectations” from the prior manager during her first three years on staff (I had no idea he was such a chicken!). When looking at the areas she was reviewed on, his reviews were all vaguely positive and didn’t really include any examples one way or the other - and nothing about the temper tantrums. Based on the MT guidance, I had good data to rely on going into the midyear review, and had her at the low end of “Meets Expectations” by mid-year. Since then she has continued on her path of small, hard-won improvements, which involve a lot of hand-holding and positive feedback for even the smallest advance. But at the end of the year, despite whatever verbal details are included in the review, she would still have ended up somewhere in that big “Meets Expectations” category.
HR published new rules LAST WEEK to be used at Year End Reviews. There are now 5 categories, with detailed descriptions of the behaviors typical for each category. They are much better than the old system – but the timing is putting me in a bind. Based on these, she clearly falls into the new “Low Meets” category. I’m concerned that this is going to look like it’s coming out of left field, given all the positive feedback I’ve been giving for the little things. I expect a lot of drama in our Year End Review meeting. Either she will fly into a rage and try to blame anybody but herself for the rating, or she will overgeneralize, cry, and threaten to give up entirely. These are the two main coping strategies she’s used in the past when confronted with problems - and this is a high stakes problem, as raises and bonuses wil be tied to the rating. 
What tips can you give me, either in how to phrase the written review, or in how to approach the review meeting? The “Low Meets” rating is the right one to give – but she is going to take it really hard, and this is my first year giving year-end reviews. What can I do to try and keep things on an even keel here?

acao162's picture

We strongly believe that your annual review should not be a surprise.  You are having conversations/coaching sessions with her regularly, so she should be aware that her performance is not meeting all expectations.  If you doubt this, have that conversation with her. That doesn't mean you should stop giving the positive feedback.

She needs to know, before the review is drafted, where she can expect her performance to be ranked and what that means in terms of bonus and raises.  She also needs to know what it will take to get her a higher rating. Show her the categories, where she's at and what needs to happen to rise to another level. 

Her reaction to this is her issue, not yours.  However, there's no need to sucker-punch her at year end.

ilkhan's picture

 This is an interesting issue, can you please post how it ultimately goes?  

roger_reiss's picture

I would hope that the new guidelines would have been accompanied with an announcement from HR (If not, shame on them!). The timing is indeed rotten; you didn't have a chance to incorporate the categories and the more explicit criteria into your goal-setting phase, so people are going to get surprised when the evaluation criteria doesn't match the evaluation expectations set at the start of the year.

Agree that you shouldn't let this be a surprise to anyone. Explain to everyone that the criteria have changed, show them how the process is now different (possibly by showing how typical ratings in the old system map into ratings in the new system), and give special attention and care to those who are on the border between 2 categories.


noo_B's picture

Hey folks, here's the followup.  I had the year end review meeting with this direct today.  Thank you for all your advice, it didn't go as badly as I thought but I'm sure glad it's done!

As soon as HR changed the ratings I shared them with the team.  To HR's credit, at least they were specific and had good examples of the behaviors typical of each rating category.  As per the advice in this thread, I switched up my one on ones and feedback to be more specific to the new rating system, so everyone, including the struggling direct, had an idea of what was ahead, even if it was basically too late in the year to make many changes.

I put a lot of detail in her review (and everyone's), using my O3 notes, email, and other sources from the year.  The Goals and Objectives we laid out for the year had clear measures attached to each one, and the onus was on the direct to provide documentation of success.  So in most cases we were on the same page, even given the new rating system.  I was extra careful in my wording when I got to hers, and made sure my boss had a copy of it beforehand, in case the direct chose to escalate.

The meeting went pretty much as predicted, but I think I dealt with the drama effectively.  She saw "Low Meets" as "about to get fired", which it's not.  In fact she's even still eligible for a small raise and bonus.  She tried to nitpick certain points; I had the facts ready and presented them calmly.  She tried to throw a colleague under the bus; I kept the focus on her, but in as sensitive a way as possible.  She cried; I had tissues, but didn't let it sway me from saying what needed to be said.  She started to overgeneralize about it not being worth the effort if she was always going to fail anyway. We talked for a while about which parts of the job she truly enjoyed and was good at, and whether it would be possible to structure her work to give her more of that (it is, to a small extent). In the end, I agreed to reword two sentences that she had fair objections to, but she accepted the overall points I made.  She still hasn't signed it, but I think the worst is over.

Thanks again - without the MT community behind me I'm sure I would have botched this up.

roger_reiss's picture

Congratulations on a well-handled situation. You were prepared, kept your cool and your resolve, and got the message across.

Now is the time to show your direct that setbacks are not fatal. When goal-setting time comes, help the direct see how the new goals map into the new system's expectations, and how she can get back in the saddle.

Keep it up!

weetiong's picture

It is indeed admirable that the OP spent considerable time and effort to lift up the struggling direct.  But this is not without cost e.g. less time and effort will be spent on the top performing directs.  Where do we draw the line?  When do we say, enough is enough, this direct has to go, and I would rather spend my resources on somebody else?