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?