Effective Word Choice for Employee Performance Review Forms

Posted by Dave • March 4, 2019 (Last modified February 1, 2023) • 4 min read

While employee performance reviews are an important activity for any organization, there can be a negative sentiment among the people who participate in them. It goes without saying the average employee is apprehensive about having their performance put under a microscope. But many managers are also put off by a typical assessment process.

The time and effort required to complete performance reviews are too often not worth the results they deliver, and plenty of managers realize that the moment they sit down to complete an evaluation form. They know what success looks like for their team but are instead presented with a document that includes general, prescriptive language. Phrases like “demonstrates a practical approach to problem-solving” and “develops creative solutions.” When a rater gets a cookie-cutter evaluation form, they fill it in as fast as possible instead of trying to give helpful feedback to the employee.

Most people will take the time to participate in an evaluation process that is likely to result in growth and improvement for the person on the receiving end. And such a process starts with creating relevant forms that have the right word choice and phrasing.

Word choice should reflect your culture

There are plenty of articles online that outline specific phrases every organization should use on their evaluation forms. The problem is they default to the same ones that cause raters eyes to glaze over.

Here’s the problem with using these same canned phrases: It leads to the classic challenge of understanding what something means in theory but not knowing how to apply it to real-world situations. Raters are forced to use their mental energy on trying to figure out what each question means in the context of the person under review, rather than giving a thoughtful response. Use more thoughtful performance review questions.

Your employees do understand your organizational culture, both from a theoretical point-of-view and on a situational level. They experience it every day and let your organizational values guide them as they work through the challenges of their jobs.

If your review forms use language that aligns with your culture, your employees will not only understand what they’re asked to rate their colleagues and direct reports on. They’ll also embrace the review process since they’re giving feedback on the points that define success within your organization.

Word choice should be role-specific

A CEB survey of over 13,000 professionals revealed that 65 percent felt their performance reviews weren’t relevant to their job. This problem also stems from too many organizations trying to take a one-size-fits-all approach to the process, which again leads to poor attitudes from participants and evaluations not having the outcome that was hoped for.

Forms should always include core competencies every employee is rated on, like attendance, communication, teamwork, and work quality. Those examples are broad and can be applied to any position regardless of team and level on the org chart.

However, you’ll also need to get detailed and include competencies that are specific to the job. Role-specific competencies should use language that is relevant to the position so the employee is given specific feedback they know precisely how to apply. This can be accomplished by centering evaluations around the employee’s individual goals and getting input from team leaders when creating forms.

Let raters evaluate in their own words

Including a rating scale for each competency is always a good idea. You want to measure every aspect of an employee’s performance and giving your forms a quantitative-focus will ensure that happens.

But context is also important. Allow reviewers to explain their thought process behind ratings and provide advice for how the employee can improve. For example, a middle-of-the-scale rating won’t mean much by itself. However, a few sentences on what the employee is doing well and where they need to improve will lead to evaluations having the impact you had in mind when you put the practice into effect.

It’s also worth including open-ended questions on evaluation forms. They give raters the chance to review employees in their own words and create talking points performance review meetings can focus on. The more thoughts you can collect from raters, the better.

Easy-to-understand forms are the best forms

Many organizations overlook the importance of simplistic evaluation forms. For some reason, they think overly-formal language is the only language that can be used.

Easy-to-understand forms lead to detailed performance evaluations. It makes the process feel less like a chore and more like an opportunity to help colleagues improve. Reviewers always know what they’re being asked, making for accurate ratings and actionable feedback.


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