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How to write better performance reviews

Words have always mattered, of course, but right now the idea is having a moment, complete with its own hashtag. In the wake of allegations of workplace harassment by celebrities (most recently Jeffrey Tambor), words spoken to and about women are in the spotlight.

I've written frequently about word choice and why it's a crucial skill for everyone -- whether you're a professional communicator or an impassioned advocate. But even I hadn't thought about word choice in terms of performance reviews until I read this article in HBR. Its main finding:

An HBR chart showing the words managers use in performance reviews, illustrating a post on The Word Factory blog

How word choice skews performance reviews

So? The words we use in employee evaluations and performance reviews can have a big impact on advancement and retention, the authors write:

Both "analytical” and “compassionate” reflect positively on the individual being evaluated. However, could one characterization be more valuable from an organizational standpoint? The term analytical is task-oriented, speaking to an individual’s ability to reason, to interpret, to strategize, and lending support to the objectives or mission of the business. Compassion is relationship-oriented, contributing to a positive work environment and culture, but perhaps of less value to accomplishing the work at hand. When considering who to hire, who to promote, or who to compensate, which person— with which attribute—takes the prize?

Likewise, who is retained and who is fired? An arrogant employee may have a character flaw–and a negative impact on his work environment—but may still be able to accomplish the task or job. An inept person, in contrast, is clearly not qualified and presumably on her way out.

So what can you do?

1. Write more accurate performance reviews by avoiding stereotypes.

Think carefully about the words you use to describe your employees to make sure you're using accurate language that's free of bias. Then make sure you're rewarding employees who exhibit the traits you value most. Again, from the article:

One of the things that’s ironic about our findings is that many of the leadership traits that people say they most appreciate, want in a leader, or make a successful leader are the positive traits — such as compassion — that women leaders receive in their performance evaluations. So why isn’t this translating into more women in these roles? It’s one thing to describe an ideal leader, it’s another to describe a real person’s performance without being influenced by stereotypes about their gender, or stereotypes about what a leader should be.

2. Train managers to choose bias-free words in the perfomance reviews they do.

Share the HBR article with your HR team and offer to work with them to create a workshop for managers on how to be more mindful of word choice in employee evaluations. Changing this habit requires more than a memo. We need to unlearn these often unconscious decisions about language, which means we need a deeper understanding of the issue (HR's contribution to the workshop) and easy to implement tactics for more accurate word choice (your part as the professional writer/communicator). HR also needs commit to challenging potentially stereotyped word choice in reviews so managers have an opportunity to correct it, and to ensure that employees whose reviews acknowledge that they exhibit desired traits are rewarded and advanced.

Word choice doesn't just matter in a traditional communications or content marketing sense. It's crucial for the writing we do inside our organization.

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