Volumes have been written about the importance of employee performance evaluations. Proponents extol their value; skeptics promote their demise. Some talk about designing the employee evaluation form. Others talk about how to conduct the employee appraisal meeting. Consultants promote greater frequency, especially for workplaces recruiting Gen Y. A few even discuss how to evaluate the evaluation. What has not received much attention, however, is the act of actually writing effective comments about employee performance.

No matter how much emphasis has been placed on it, the fact remains that employee engagement is the key to conducting effective and productive performance evaluations. Engagement beings with the manager providing advice and counsel, not a report card. 

A good starting point is for the managers to describe exactly what it is he or she wants to accomplish.  Is this an annual review?  Is it to review a probationary employee?  Perhaps you’re reviewing performance on a specific project.  Whichever it is, you can be succinct, to the point.  You can be objective. Focus will help you go where you intended to go.  But regardless about what you write, take a few minutes and plan that journey in advance.

Next, consider what challenges, obstacles, feedback or, heaven forbid, blow back you can reasonably anticipate throughout.   Plan, in writing, a response for each item you believe may happen.  While you can’t predict every possibility, there are situations or circumstances you can reasonably expect.  

Now for possibly the most important writing a manager can do.  Too often performance review forms rely on cookie-cutter, checklist-style performance evaluations: Grading on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10.  Or perhaps rating each performance aspect from Excellent to Poor or Needs Improvement.  The “grade” provides little help or insight into improving or advancing performance. While this system is quite common and expedient, these types of employee evaluation forms are usually inadequate to address the sole reason for their existence:  Evaluation of Performance. 

An effective employee performance appraisal identifies strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, guidelines for improvement are clearly articulated which should stimulate a productive dialogue with the employee.  This conversation should engage both the manager and employee in a discussion that helps improve employee performance, productivity, and career development. To encourage this dialogue, supervisors and managers must provide written comments describing or defending their rating of the employee.  Without these comments, the performance review process becomes no more than an elementary school report card. 

So, what does a manager write about?  To borrow from a popular television crime drama of the late 1960s, “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”  Writing performance evaluations is not the time to engage in creative writing or clever prose which you hope will disguise uncomfortable issues or bad news.  

The narrative portion of any performance evaluation is the most important.  It is here where you, as the appraiser, have the opportunity to communicate in a clear, concise and constructive manner, everything your staff member needs to know in order to fully understand her job and perform it to the best of her ability.  So facts are of critical importance.   The more information about her performance that you can provide in factual form, the easier it will be to illustrate how he or she performed her job.  This will also make it easier to assess empirical rather than anecdotal evidence in the context of (and measured against) established goals and objectives.  

The language used when writing performance evaluations should always be without any opinion or editorial comment, unless such comments serve to provide guidance for improvement (e.g., “If I were you, this is how I would….”).  Objective, unemotional language will not only assist you in staying on task, but will facilitate a less emotional response from your employee.  Someone will always take a personal observation personally so don’t make one. 

One additional thing to remember when writing performance evaluations is that you should avoid including anything that is not relevant to the review itself.  Keep references to outside issues or observations not related to how the job is performed out (e.g., family matters). 

Writing effective performance evaluations is art, not science. It requires managers to describe shortfalls and recommend improvement. It’s time for employers to turn the annual performance review into a process that engages employees, not grades them. Providing thoughtful, objective, and helpful comments in addition to a numerical grade adds context to employee ratings and power to the process.