TL:DR version: Is it appropriate for a manager to comment to a subordinate with regard to the subordinate's facial expressions during a formal performance evaluation? If so, in what situations might such comment be considered justified? If not, what arguments might someone who has faced (pardon the pun) such feedback in a performance evaluation be able to draw upon to defend him/herself?
More broadly, how to respond to performance evaluation that includes comments unrelated to job performance?
Background: My friend's wife shared a recent situation, in which her team's female manager disciplined another female colleague during a formal performance evaluation, by telling her to "control your facial expressions." It's unclear exactly how this was framed, e.g. "please do a better job to control your facial expressions" or "you need to better control your facial expressions." But it was something to this effect.
This colleague does appear to exhibit fairly strong facial expressions (i.e., the opposite of "poker face"). Her face is naturally highly expressive, betraying her affective responses and other reactions, such as surprise, confusion, disagreement, bewilderment, displeasure, etc. Such behavior is consistent across contexts, i.e. in more social situations such as weekly team meetings, as well as in 1-on-1 conversations.
It is safe to assume that these facial expressions have NOT been a major distraction to this person's colleagues, or a subject of a complaint to the manager by anyone from the team. The colleague does not behave in any way that might be considered 'inappropriate' or clearly unprofessional. It is more of a passive and harmless personal quirk, than something that might be regarded as provocative or disturbing. To my friend's wife's best knowledge, although others on the team may have noticed this behavioral pattern, nobody made a big deal of it.
If a specific occasion triggered the manager's remark, this was not apparent to the rest of the group. It appears that the manager had been observing this person over time, gradually forming a judgment about her facial expressions, and finally considered it appropriate to use it as part of her formal feedback to this individual in a performance evaluation.
It is unclear whether the issue of facial expressions in and of itself had impacted the person's performance evaluation rating. It appears the person's overall performance rating was average, however (not 'exceeds expectations').
One explanation might be that the manager is inexperienced and had no major constructive feedback, and instead was hunting for something to pick on. In this case, overly expressive facial expressions happened to be one distinguishing characteristic which justified it as a subject for feedback.
Another explanation might be that the manager did consider the facial expressions as problematic for any number of reasons, to the extent that warranted bringing this as an issue to the employee's attention in a formal evaluation, in order to persuade the employee to develop the self-awareness necessary to exercise restraint with her facial expressions.
To be sure: The employee did perceive the manager's remark to be insulting and inappropriate. There is no evidence that the manager's remark had succeeded in changing the behavior in question (presuming it is something the employee could in fact voluntarily control).
There are two questions:
Is it appropriate for a manager to comment to a subordinate with regard to the subordinate's facial expressions as part of a formal performance evaluation? If so, in what situations might such comment be considered justified? If not, what arguments might someone who has faced (pardon the pun) such feedback in a performance evaluation be able to draw upon to defend him/herself?
How to respond to performance evaluation that includes comments unrelated to job performance? Have you been in a situation where your performance review involved some aspect which to you seemed like absolute BS, i.e., was completely unrelated to your job performance, but rather was something you got picked on for the sake of justifying a lesser rating? Have you been able to effectively address/resolve this situation?
This question is analogous to, though not identical to the question, "How to deal with being asked to smile more?". However, the question here pertains to criticism of one's facial expressions specifically in the context of a performance evaluation, thereby implicitly making it part of the criteria by which one's performance is being judged. The company probably has a general policy regarding 'professional conduct,' but nothing specifically linking facial expressions with such conduct.