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Phrases for Performance Reviews and Other Difficult Conversations

How to Speak So That Employees Listen and Take Action


Phrases for Performance Reviews and Other Difficult Conversations

Employees need feedback. They want to know how they are doing and if they are meeting their manager’s expectations. Feedback is fun when you can offer praise and satisfaction. It is more challenging when you need to discuss improving performance.

Organizations hold a performance review to provide feedback, encourage employee development, and assess employee progress and contribution. Whether an employee is meeting and exceeding job expectations is a critical component of the performance review feedback.

A formal performance review challenges the manager’s communication skills because the employee understands that the performance review will affect his compensation. This can cause conflict and hurt feelings.

Regardless of how your organization practices performance feedback, when you need to hold a difficult conversation, these phrases and approaches will help.

Your performance is outstanding.

This communication is easy, but you can improve its impact and affect. Mention why and give examples of the reasons why you rated the employee’s performance outstanding. The employee will learn from your examples and you can encourage her to do more of the actions that you identified as noteworthy.

You are currently performing and your performance can be improved.

You are performing and meeting the expectations of your job requirements. You have the opportunity to improve your performance and aim to become an outstanding contributor. These are the areas that need your attention.

Your performance qualifies you for a raise because you are successfully carrying out your most important job requirements. I’d like to see improvement in these areas.

You have said that your goal is to earn the largest possible pay increase each year. You need to improve your current performance to accomplish your goal. Let’s talk about the areas in which you have the greatest opportunity for improvement.

Your performance is not meeting expectations.

We’ve discussed your performance during our weekly meetings. It is not improving and it’s time to talk about a plan of action. In our company, all employees are expected to perform, at a minimum, their job expectations.

These are the key areas of your performance that need improvement before I can determine that your performance is meeting minimum job expectations.

You are not performing your minimum job expectations that we discussed for the year. Somehow I am not communicating this information clearly so that you understand the implications of your continued poor performance. I’ve decided that a performance improvement plan in which we set goals, make agreements, set deadlines and due dates, and meet frequently to assess progress, is our next step.

Employee does not understand what you are telling him.

Do not continue to repeat the same words over and over when an employee does not seem to understand what you are trying to communicate. Find different approaches to saying the same thing and hope that one of them will clearly communicate your concerns. (Sometimes a lack of clarity signals disagreement.)

Tell the employee that you are open to any questions that might help clarify the points he doesn’t understand.

Ask the employee to summarize his understanding of your key areas of concern. (You can determine what is not understood and how far apart you are in communicating.)

Employee disagrees with what you are telling him.

When you have tried to clearly communicate the problems you note with an employee’s performance, and the employee disagrees, questioning is one recommended approach.

  • Can you provide examples that will show me what is wrong about my assessment of your performance?

  • What do you think that I am misunderstanding about the performance that I have observed regularly this quarter?

The feedback that I have received from your coworkers, team members, and other managers is consistent with my observations. Consequently, I know that you disagree with my assessment, but I haven’t heard anything today that makes me want to alter it. For now, my assessment will stand. I will be happy to discuss your performance further in a month at our weekly meeting after I have seen evidence of improvement in these areas…

You feel the need to summarize and make sure that you are sharing meaning with the other party.

Say to the employee, John, will you summarize our discussion here today so that I know that you and I are on the same page?


You want to express confidence in the employee’s ability to learn, grow, change, or improve.

I am confident that you will be able to make the changes that we have discussed today.

I believe that you will be able to make these improvements because you have the talent and skills needed for better than average performance. I am available to help you when you encounter barriers to your success or if you feel you will miss a due date or deadline. Just let me know that the slipping is occurring as soon as you are aware of it.

You want to establish the plan for follow-up.

Let’s make a plan together for how you will pursue these improvements. I want to have feedback points frequently enough so that we know when a problem is occurring.

Take the time between now and Thursday to come up with a plan to make these improvements. On Thursday, you and I can agree on the goals and timelines for the plan. I’ll think about it also and come prepared with my ideas, too.

You wish to reach agreement on an action plan.

Do you agree that this is an achievable plan?

We have put this plan together. I am confident that you will be able to accomplish the needed improvements within the timelines we developed. Do you agree? What concerns might you have that we can talk about today?

You need to announce a pay decision that you know will not be popular.

Based on your performance this year, I have determined that you are not eligible for a salary increase.

Because you have not achieved your job expectations, you will not receive a raise this cycle. I will be happy to discuss this further in 4-6 months after I have seen sustained improvement in your performance.

State the amount of the salary increase and the amount of pay that the increase will bring in the employee’s paycheck with new salary increase. Percentages are not motivating in all cases. Sure the employee can do the math, and likely will, but your goal is to make the employee aware of the change in pay.

  • Your salary increase is $500 bringing your total salary to $55,000.00.

When you communicate clearly and take care to avoid a defensive reaction, you can express your expectations in a way that the employee hears. You can speak so that employee listens, comprehends and improves. And, isn't that the goal of all of this?

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