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Excellent notion!

Ann -

I agree, managers often make difficult conversations even more difficult by using inflammatory words that add little value.
While no one likes to find how they are seen as "poor", I’m not sure if using a phrase like “does not meet stated expectations” would make much difference. These conversations are always going to be difficult, but I think I’d rather have a little blunt candor than holding back and mincing words.

Chris Young over at Maximizing Possibility just wrote a post on this topic, called “Cutting Through the BS,”, that offers some good insights on candor and performance conversations: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2008/04/cutting-through.html

My mother was the bane of my teachers in elementary school. I was that kid who was always moving around, always asking "why?" and generally always difficult for my teachers to deal with. They, in turn, would call my mother down to school and ask her to address my "misbehavior."

My five foot tall mother would rise up and explain to the educators that "There is no such thing as 'misbehavior,' there is only behavior."

So, too, there is no "poor" performance, there is only performance. That performance should be measurable and it should be compared to a standard.

Dan:

I agree that the word choice alone won't turn a difficult conversation into an easy one - but I think it helps frame the discussion. And, while this may not always be the case, it can help us separate the person (who might have talent and motivation but be miserably misplaced job-wise) from their ability to produce the outcome and results the job requires. And I don't believe that using words that focus on the work and expected outcomes necessarily means that you are approaching the discussion with anything less than complete candor.

If we have done our work on the front end - (skipping to Wally's comment) by establishing the standards and expectations for the work - then the back end discussion can and should be focused on how things went relative to that bar.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts - and for highlighting Chris Young's post, a great one!

Ann,

Great post on eliminating "poor" from appraisal labels.

I did a survey of 151 HR managers a year or two ago about what's the best and worst appraisal labels and got 84 usable responses. The choices offered for the term that best describes the highest level of performance were OUTSTANDING, DISTINGUISHED, and SUPERIOR.

For the lowest level of performance, the choices were UNACCEPTABLE, UNSATISFACTORY, and MARGINAL. In each case, respondents were asked: “Of the following three descriptions of excellent performance, which term strikes you as the best or highest level? And of these three, which is the worst or lowest level?”

There was no question among the HR execs surveyed about what the best term for the worst performance was. "Unacceptable" ran away with the vote, with 60 out of 84 respondents — just over 70% — agreeing that performance can’t get any worse than unacceptable. Several respondents cringed in choosing the term unacceptable as the lowest level to put on a performance appraisal form. One manager put it bluntly: “Unacceptable. That’s really bad. The person should be terminated if their work is unacceptable.”

Unlike the bottom end of the scale where there was almost universal agreement on the term that signifies the worst performance, the top end of the performance ladder presented a virtual tie. "Outstanding" garnered 29 of 84 votes to win the top position, but "Superior" closely followed with 28. "Distinguished," with 27 votes, came in last. A virtual dead heat.

But the most important consideration in deciding on rating labels is to make sure that the middle rating -- the place where the performance of the majority of people is most accurately assessed -- doesn't send a connotation of mediocrity. Whose soul would be stirred by being rated as "Competent" or the deflating "Meets Expectations"? Use a label like "Fully Successful" or "Good Solid Performer." Choosing one of those affirmative terms for the middle rating will make it easier for managers to give people the ratings they deserve.

Dick Grote

Dick:

Thanks for checking in and for sharing the interesting research on rating labels. I agree with you that it is important to use an affirmative term for the middle rating - I like "fully successful"!

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About The Author

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    Compensation consultant Ann Bares is the Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group. Ann has more than 20 years of experience consulting with organizations in the areas of compensation and performance management.

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