9 Action Items for HR Directors when Approving an Employee Performance Appraisal

Posted by Julie • September 17, 2015 (Last modified February 1, 2023) • 6 min read

You’re a manager’s manager (or HR) and you have been asked to approve a performance appraisal before it goes back to the employee. You’re wondering, “What should I look for?”

1. Low scores.

On a five point scale, anything with a rating of 1 or 2 should catch your eye. If a manager has scored an employee below the midpoint, the performance appraisal should have comments explaining the low rating.

Comments should substantiate a low rating. When possible, comments should include:

  • Dates
  • Times
  • Business impact

Here are examples of sufficient comments, and insufficient ones:

Insufficient Comments: Employee A fails to communicate and this causes regular confusion in the department.

Sufficient Comments: Employee A fails to communicate and this causes regular confusion in the department. An example of this is when Project ABC was nearing completion, Employee A did not share preliminary results until it was too late. Advance knowledge for all team members was critical, and others did not have time to react and adjust. This delayed implementation on the customer side.

The first comment leaves the employee wondering which actions may be at the root of the rating. The second comment provides a specific example, which may also open the door to a specific pattern of behavior that can be addressed.

If an appraisal fails to include specific comments alongside a low rating, you should disapprove the appraisal and request more information.

2. High Scores.

On a five point scale, anything with a rating of 5 should catch your eye as an approver. If a manager has scored an employee with the highest rating, the performance appraisal should have comments explaining the high score.

Why? Any employee deserving the top score will want to be recognized for his/her important contributions. A high rating with generic comments or no comments can feel meaningless – not the way you want your top performers to feel.

If high ratings are given without supporting comments to accompany the rating, you may choose to disapprove the appraisal and request specific, positive comments.

Comments should substantiate high ratings. When possible, comments should include:

    • Dates
    • Times
    • Business impact

Insufficient Comments: Employee A is a terrific communicator! We appreciate her hard work.

Sufficient Comments: Employee A regularly communicates updates as projects progress. An example of this is when Project ABC was nearing completion, Employee A shared preliminary results with the team before the due date. Advance knowledge was critical, and other team players were able to react and adjust as a result. This helped create a smooth implementation on the customer side.

3. Bias.

Is the relationship between manager and employee strained? Does the appraisal read as such?

If comments provide too much opinion, disapprove the appraisal and request that the manager revise his/her words to a more neutral perspective. Here’s an example:

Obvious bias: I couldn’t believe when Employee A decided to proceed with Project A – what kind of a decision was that? None of the qualifications for moving forward were met, and this seems to happen all the time. Others are irritated with the behavior and we’re getting tired of it.

Neutral: Employee A, Project A was problematic. The outlined procedures for moving forward were lacking, and departmental relationships were strained as a result. Improvement will be needed, specifically in the areas of communication with others as projects proceed.

It’s important the performance appraisal contains comments that are professional. In the example above, it reads like the manager is the one with the problem. Think about the types of performance review questions asked, for example.

4. HR violations.

As an approver, you’re looking for sensitive words or phrases that may be inappropriate on a performance appraisal. Words that address ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or the like (not an exhaustive list by any means!) are usually not appropriate on a performance appraisal and should be avoided.

When reading the performance appraisal, if you find comments that are questionable, disapprove the appraisal and ask the manager to remove the comments. Then, have a meeting with the manager to help him/her understand appropriate boundaries for employers.

Examples of comments that would warrant disapproval:

  • She’s too old to do the job (age/gender bias)
  • Employee A’s maternity leave put the department in a real bind (yeah, no. Any discipline required by the manager after a comment like this – necessary or not – could be construed as retaliatory.)
  • Employee A appears to come to work high on Thursday afternoons. (Baseless accusation)
  • Employee A is a !!$#$# lazy. (obviously not okay)
  • Employee A is not the sharpest tool in the shed and sometimes acts like a 6-year old. (got something against 6-year olds?)
  • Some comments may be less obvious and hug the border of appropriate more closely. In those cases, use your best judgment. Remember, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution.

5. Grammar.

As an approver, you don’t have to be a copy editor. However, obvious grammar problems should be addressed.

Try to find a balance between re-writing your manager’s words and making sure the appraisal feels both authentic (like the actual manager wrote it) and grammatically acceptable.

Example: “He don’t come to work ontime.”
Edit: Employee A fails to report to work on time on a regular basis. There were 5 documented instances in July 2015: 7/6, 7/7, 7/11, 7/15, 7/25.

Question: What if the employee submits a self-appraisal filled with grammar issues?

Answer: Don’t worry about it, unless the inability to communicate in written form is a job qualification. As an approver, you’re looking for errors made by the manager. If poor writing skills affect the employee’s performance on the job, good news. Now you have a documented example.

6. Fairness.

Does the appraisal seem generally fair, based on your knowledge of the situation? Is the score too high, or too low in comparison to others you’ve seen? Do you have knowledge of anything that may affect the outcome?

Unless anything stands out, approve the appraisal.

7. Manager malaise.

Did the manager blindly choose the ratings (all level 3, no variance, no comments?)

This could be a reason to disapprove. Perhaps the employee is performing well across the board, However, with no comments, an appraisal scored blindly will be discouraging to receive.

Remember, employees are looking for meaningful feedback.

8. Signs of Promotability

Does this employee show signs of leadership? Has he/she had a history of strong reviews? Could this employee benefit from expanded responsibilities?

As an approver, look for signs that an employee may be ready to move into new areas. Then, consider a conversation with his/her manager about what may be possible.

9. Signs of Leaving

As an approver, you’re looking for three things here:

1. Comments made by the employee in the self-appraisal that may indicate boredom or dissatisfaction
2. Low scores, lack of success
3. Clear tension between employee/manager

If you see any of the indicators above, they may reveal that the employee is considering leaving. Take action if you wish to retain the employee.

Final thoughts

It’s important to know that a lot of appraisals require editing (disapproval.) If changes are required, don’t hesitate to ask the manager to make the necessary adjustments.

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