How to Give Feedback About Inconsistency

A reader asks:  

I need to write a performance evaluation for a staff member who almost seems like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Sometimes she does really well and performs at a high level, but other times she seems nearly checked out. And of course, every time I’m about to talk to her about it, she does something great. I’m not sure how to evaluate her fairly. Plus, I haven’t brought this up before, and I’m wondering if it’s fair to raise it for the first time in a formal evaluation.”


Ugh. Well, it’s true that in an ideal world, you’d always give comprehensive feedback throughout the year and nothing in a formal evaluation would ever be a surprise … but it’s also true that everyone, including us, violates that rule at one time or another. And the reason for that is not that you’re a horrible person. It’s that evaluations are a time when you step back to think more deeply about how a staff member is doing than you might in the day-to-day … and as a result you may spot trends that might not have struck you as trends before, or you might simply think to say something differently. That doesn’t mean that you were wimpy earlier in the year; it’s sometimes the nature of doing a deep evaluation.

And you can be transparent about that. You might say something like, “I realize I haven’t brought this up before now, but in writing your evaluation, this occurred to me.”

As for struggling to evaluate a staff member who seems like two different employees – a good one and a not-as-good one – the best way to approach it is to name the issue for what it is: inconsistency. And that’s the feedback to deliver. Explain that her performance has been inconsistent, at times great and at times not, and that you’re looking for her to sustain the highs all the time, not just some of the time.

A few more tips to keep in mind as you’re writing evaluations, for any staff member:

• Ask yourself what the fundamental message is that you want the staff member to take from the evaluation. Make sure that theme comes through, and say it explicitly in your summary. For instance, in the example in the letter, it might be, “Your performance this year was mixed, and I need you to be more consistent going forward.” In other cases, it might be, “You’re doing a good job on the basics, but I’d like to see more focus on longer-term goals” or, “You’re operating at an outstanding level; keep it up!”

• Don’t lose sight of what results the person delivered. Managers sometimes end up focusing so much on how the employee does her work (such as how she gets along with others) that they forget to emphasize what she is – or isn’t – getting done. Of course, how someone approaches her job matters too, and looking at that can give you a chance to provide feedback that can help in professional development and skill-building.  Just be sure not to focus on soft skills to the exclusion of actual results.

• Treat the entire performance evaluation process as a conversation with your employee, not just as a form to be filled out. Yes, the form ensures that you’re covering key issues, but it’s not an end unto itself; it’s a jumping off point for a dialogue with your staff member. So once you’ve given her time to review the written evaluation, meet to discuss it: Is it aligned with her own assessment of her performance? What might she do differently in the coming year? Where should things go from here?