Finding the right words can be challenging — especially when it comes to performance reviews. Managers strive to strike the delicate balance between sharing an honest performance appraisal, highlighting opportunities for growth and development, motivating employees by acknowledging their successes, and gauging an employee’s own perception of their performance.
Complicating matters further is the long-term uncertainty, change, grief, fear, and confusion we’ve experienced for more than a year because of the COVID pandemic, compounded even further by the trauma of widespread, horrifying acts of racial injustice. Giving a performance review in a time of ongoing, omnipresent stress can be challenging, and makes including — and avoiding — the right words and phrases all the more important.
But by utilizing tried and true, professionally-vetted performance review phrases, you’ll be able to identify and describe key behaviors and skills and provide constructive feedback to aid employees in improving performance — with sensitivity, care, and compassion.
Performance Reviews: One Piece of Performance Management
It’s important to note that even if you provide the most incisive, accurate, and motivational performance review, doing so in a vacuum absent of other feedback won’t get you far. To be effective, performance reviews must exist within the ecosystem of greater performance management, which includes mid-year and annual reviews, but also regular check-ins, like one-on-ones; affirmations, like sharing everyday praise; and a general culture of feedback.
6 Categories of Employee Performance
In the guide that follows, you’ll find a brief introduction to some common categories of employee performance, followed by specific examples of phrases to use for each. Many of the performance review phrases included in this guide were inspired by the book 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews by Paul Falcone, while others came from our conversations with experts who contributed their perspectives and advice throughout this article.
Most of the phrases we’ve highlighted are used to indicate that an employee is meeting or exceeding expectations. However, at the end of each section, we’ve also included a few examples of verbiage to indicate an employee needs to improve their performance.
These performance review examples are meant to inspire managers who are struggling to find the right words and phrases to describe behavior. But note that these examples are just a jumping-off point; they are generic phrases that managers should modify to reflect individual employees and their performance, and expand upon with specific examples.
For instance, a manager using the phrase “Is quick to ask follow-up questions that pinpoint misunderstanding or a lack of foresight” in the Communication and Cooperation section could adjust the phrase so it reads:
“Toni is quick to ask follow-up questions that pinpoint misunderstanding or a lack of foresight. For example, during the team sync after our discovery call with the new client Company X, Toni asked about the bandwidth issues we’d likely experience while attempting to share such large files from our home networks. As we’d just made the pivot to remote work, this was not top-of-mind for most, and Toni not only brought the issue to light but also offered a workable solution.”
Let’s take a look at six key categories of employee performance and which phrases to use and avoid for each in order to write an effective performance review.
1. Communication and Cooperation
When evaluating employees on communication skills, be sure to go beyond their ability to send concise emails or articulately answer post-presentation questions. People’s communication skills and styles are going to vary widely, and it’s important to discuss specifically how an employee’s ability to communicate supports their success in their role, whether by deepening relationships with company partners or providing clear direction and constructive feedback to direct reports.
Phrases Indicating an Employee Is Meeting or Exceeding Communication Expectations
- Often asks for immediate feedback to clarify and ensure understanding
- Regularly asks well-prepared or thoughtfully composed questions
- Is quick to ask follow-up questions that pinpoint misunderstanding or a lack of foresight
- Exhibits a sense of humor and brings levity to business dealings
- Is comfortable saying, “I’m not sure. Can I get back to you?”
- Asks others for their opinions and makes coworkers feel comfortable contributing
- Collaborates cross-functionally and builds strong working relationships with other internal departments
- Promotes cooperation, communication, and collaboration by sharing their own knowledge and inviting others to do the same
- Explicitly communicates expectations, objectives, and key results to team members and direct reports
Phrases Indicating Employee Needs to Improve in Communication
- Can be verbose, which makes it difficult for them to communicate a clear message
- Exhibits difficulty breaking down complex issues into manageable parts
- Is unwilling to commit their staff’s resources to other departments when asked
When describing achievements, managers should tie employee impact to business outcome. Linking the two clarifies to employees how their actions are helping advance the organization’s goals and agenda.
“I like to use phrases that home in on key positive traits of the employee that are benefitting our business, then back them up with specific examples,” said Ravi Parikh, CEO of RoverPass, a SaaS company that helps individuals book campsites. “If I can tie it to a clear outcome, I do.” Parikh offered this verbiage as an example: “Your implementation of chatbots on our websites contributed to a 21% rise in online sales this past year.”
Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations at Force by Mojio, a GPS fleet-tracking app, noted that including specific metrics in performance evaluations is powerful. “They help contextualize employee achievements in a real-world situation and provide a clear benchmark for success,” he said.
Phrases Indicating an Employee Is Meeting or Exceeding Achievement Expectations
- Improved communication by [include one to three specific examples]
- Improved our service and/or production of X item or X service by Y%
- Led X project leading to higher-than-expected profits in Y quarter
Phrases Indicating Employee Needs to Improve in Achievement Expectations
- Often reports a lack of necessary resources to perform the tasks of their role adequately
- Struggles to deliver error-free work and has trouble meeting project deadlines
- Regularly fails to provide timely updates or make requests for assistance when projects aren’t going as expected
3. Teamwork and Collaboration
Lori Rassas, SPHR-certified employment attorney and author of It's About You, Too: How to Manage Employee Resistance to Your Diversity Initiatives and Improve Workplace Culture and Profitability, said it’s important to acknowledge that the standards you’ve historically used to determine success aren’t the same as last year’s, and the way you phrase your review should reflect that.
“If someone set a goal of closing 10 contracts with their team in 2020 but only ended up securing five — during lockdown, when two of their team members were sick, and two others were home-schooling their grade-school children, [for example] — you want to make it clear you recognize the work it took to keep everyone motivated and redistribute the work,” Rassas stressed.
Dholakia noted that touching on how an employee’s achievements support the team and organizational success is beneficial. “When an employee makes their coworkers' work better, they’re bringing value to your company as a whole,” he said. “Make sure to mention it.”
Phrases Indicating an Employee Is Meeting or Exceeding Collaboration Expectations
- Elevates their team’s performance and productivity by [include one to two specific examples]
- Promotes cooperation on teams and encourages participation from individual members
- Builds effective teams by helping team members play to their strengths
- Fosters a sense of unity on teams, which encourages individual buy-in and helps the group reach its common goal
- Insists on mutually respectful dialogue when resolving interpersonal problems or challenges
- Provides positive affirmation and encouragement to balance constructive criticism
Phrases Indicating Employee Needs to Improve in Collaboration
- Fails to provide emotional encouragement or hands-on support to team members who are struggling
- Discourages coworkers from volunteering ideas by interrupting others in team meetings
- Responds aggressively when their authority is challenged
4. Creativity and Innovation
For many, creativity was hard to tap into over the course of the pandemic. Rather than leading dynamic lives full of various locations to frequent and people with whom to interact, along with the mental space needed for generating fresh ideas, most of us were marooned at home with little variation in our daily lives. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge creativity, both in idea generation and problem-solving.
“I would ensure that I acknowledge an individual who develops creative strategies and seeks creative solutions to challenging obstacles,” said Rassas. “These are the people who went over, under, and through the obstacles of last year.”
Phrases Indicating an Employee Is Meeting or Exceeding Innovation Expectations
- Translates creative ideas into practical application to solve everyday issues
- Engenders creative collaboration on teams by inviting diverse perspectives
- Resolved long-standing X problem with the creative workaround of Y
- Regularly comes up with innovative solutions when confronted with obstacles
- Understands when to take creative risks and when to stick with more conventional solutions
- Drives creativity across the team by seeking out different perspectives and embracing experimentation
Phrases Indicating Employee Needs to Improve in Innovation
- Struggles to adjust their work in the face of a client’s changing needs
- Shows reticence in embracing new approaches or ideas
- Is unwilling to explore the creative ideas of peers
5. Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking
Solving complex problems took on new meaning during COVID: No longer were team members and managers solely focused on the challenging problem of their work — be it operations, finance, content production, or sales — but suddenly teams everywhere also had to find new ways to solve tough problems posed by the pandemic, which was a challenge in and of itself.
“You want to be sure to acknowledge those who carefully evaluated the pros and cons of challenging decisions and excelled in seeking solutions,” said Rassas. She noted that these things are especially impactful and important to touch on in a performance review because employees weren’t working face-to-face this past year, or even necessarily working the same hours. “We might have had to make decisions [on our own] over the last year, which under normal circumstances, we would have only made after consultation with others,” she said.
Phrases Indicating an Employee Is Meeting or Exceeding Problem-Solving Expectations
- Easily identifies more efficient solutions
- Sees obstacles as problems to be solved
- Analyzes possible impediments in order to avoid delays
- Finds sustainable solutions to complex problems
Phrases Indicating Employee Needs to Improve in Problem-Solving
- Struggles to see the patterns in recurring issues
- Approaches problems in a segmented fashion, focusing on only one component at a time
- Has a hard time identifying the root cause of the problem
6. Flexibility and Adaptability
The past year of seemingly unending uncertainty has newly thrust flexibility and adaptability into the spotlight of employee performance; make sure your employee performance reviews reflect this. Commending adaptability and a willingness to change in the face of a quick transition to remote work also helps the manager contextualize and counter other aspects of the review that highlight a need for improvement.
Phrases Indicating an Employee Is Meeting or Exceeding Flexibility and Adaptability Expectations
- Shows leadership skill and a positive attitude when the team has to pivot quickly
- Maintains composure when faced with stressful or unexpected situations
- Quickly adapts to a new action plan when plans change or unexpected issues arise
- Appears to view change as a positive opportunity to improve
Phrases Indicating Employee Needs to Improve Their Flexibility and Adaptability
- Appears to resent new work assignments
- Becomes frustrated and unfocused when faced with unexpected challenges
- Resists implementing new, company-wide policies or programs in their day-to-day
3 Things to Avoid for Effective Performance Reviews
Just as it’s important to touch on key points of an employee's performance with the right verbiage, managers can give better performance reviews by avoiding certain pitfalls, too. Here are three things not to do.
1. Don’t be vague.
You’d be surprised how often ambiguous verbiage slips into our written and verbal communication. This is even more true in business settings where we’re at greater risk of speaking or writing in vague terms because using jargon or clichés is so common.
Dholakia said this is why he avoids the term ‘team player,’ for instance. “It’s a meaningless term that doesn’t say anything concrete or specific about how the employee collaborates with others,” he said.
2. Avoid absolutes.
Use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ sparingly, if at all. It’s rarely accurate that an employee always or never does something. If an employee is often late to work, avoid saying,“You’re always late” or, “You’re never punctual.” Rebecca Southern Mills, HR consultant and founder of Simplecated, a Georgia-based HR consultancy, said managers should provide more accurate and specific feedback, like, “You’ve been late to work at least twice a week for the last six months.”
3. Skip surprises.
Because managers and their direct reports should have open communication and exchange regular feedback, “nothing in a performance review should ever come as a surprise to a team member,” said Arron Grow, PhD, Chief Solutions Officer at management consulting firm AP Grow and author of How to Not Suck As a Manager.
Great managers ensure employees know how they are performing, and whether they are meeting expectations or not. “If something needs to be said to help a team member improve, have that conversation (or two) long before the performance review,” Grow advised. “Surprises are great for holidays and birthdays, but not for performance reviews.”
Finding the words and phrases to accurately describe employee performance can be tough. Especially during this time marred by tremendous uncertainty, upheaval, and change, selecting the right verbiage is even more crucial than ever.
This guide can ensure managers appraise the core components of performance and behavior, while serving as a reminder to introduce extra sensitivity to performance reviews in light of the challenging year we’ve endured. The darkest days of the pandemic seem to have passed, and we remain optimistic that the workplace can retain the lessons we’ve learned on empathy, understanding, kindness, and flexibility for those who make work truly meaningful — the people.