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:

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

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    We only have your third hand explanation of what transpired, but behavior can be part of your performance. If the reviewee's facial expressions were viewed as immature or rude, than it is acceptable to comment on them. – cdkMoose Dec 27 '16 at 18:53
  • The overall point you make that sometimes such behaviors may in fact be related to performance makes sense. But feedback focused on personal idiosyncrasies is a slippery slope: too talkative, too quiet, too expressive, too reserved.. I can see how going down this path opens the way to feedback which verges on bullying. Don't like it? Too sensitive? Deal with it. I wonder if such culture breeds strong performers, or suppressed conformists who are only tolerated if they regress to the mean? Also, would a White manager have given such feedback to a Black subordinate..? Double standard? – A.S Dec 27 '16 at 22:38
  • @JoeStrazzere With all respect, I think you mean realistic, not ridiculous. Especially since we are talking about the real world. Good luck to any manager who doesn't take race into account when dealing with his subordinates...especially in the U.S. Btw, defaulting to indignant tone and putting the 'racist' label when anyone discusses differential treatment due to racial factors is one of the reasons race relations are so strained in this country. Everyone recognizes the implicit double standard, but nobody touches the subject at risk of being labeled -- as you illustrate. – A.S Dec 28 '16 at 13:27
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    It's always a fine balance to find between people who are strong performers, taken individually, and the result of the team as a whole. If extra-professional elements(like facial expression) are a problem to the team, then it can be a good idea to take care of it. A good manager in a good firm is asked to have a efficient team, not efficient individuals. – gazzz0x2z Dec 28 '16 at 14:07
  • @Aymor, Race should never be part of a performance evaluation. Neither should gender, religion, sexual preference or any other non-work differentiating factor. Managers should not "take race into account", actually they should manage and evaluate their team members with a blind eye to any of those factors. Employees should be evaluated on their performance. – cdkMoose Dec 29 '16 at 17:29
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Facial expressions can be performance-related, depending on what emotions are being shown or what the person's role is. Lack of a poker face could be a liability in a sales role, and a tendency to grimace, frown, or roll one's eyes in meetings would generally be seen as problematic by other attendees.

During the performance review you respond, as Kate Gregory said, by asking for clarification. Is this "oh by the way" advice or is it performance feedback? If the latter, ask for examples or details. I was once told in a performance evaluation that I was "too assertive for a woman" (!), and you can bet I asked what he meant by that and took careful notes.1 Had he included that in the written evaluation, I would have crafted a response to that.

And that brings me to the final point: if the performance review is accompanied by a written document, and you have the opportunity to respond to or comment on that document in writing, do so -- but carefully. This response is for the record, for when somebody in HR or some future manager is reviewing your history. It's not a substitute for discussing the matter with your manager; you should have done that already. The purpose of the response is to correct errors of fact, to record an objection, and/or to say something about how you will address the issue. It's not the place to ask for clarification or to make a long or emotional argument. Be brief and dispassionate.

You could write something like this:

My manager raised concerns about how expressive my face is during meetings. I was unaware that this was an issue. Contrary to what is written here, nobody said anything to me about this at the corporate all-hands conference last summer. As we discussed, I will try to develop more of a poker face by doing X and Y.

1 Careful notes help you to improve if it's a real issue, or discuss the matter with senior management if it's not a real issue.

Here is how to respond to every performance review component that doesn't seem to be about your performance:

[Repeat what you just heard, in the form of an echoing question. In this case "control my facial expressions?"]. Is that actually part of my review? I'm sorry not to understand how that is relevant to my role here. Can you go into more detail please?

The reviewer may have just felt mocked in the instant and the directive may have been an ephemeral comment about "stop making faces at me while I give you your review." Or it may be a longer term thing. Perhaps a client felt mocked, or a visiting senior manager. Or it may be utter nonsense. The only way to know is to ask, as close to the occurrence as possible. If the sentence is said out loud, asking for more detail while the sentence still hangs in the air is a good response. If the review is over, then it wouldn't hurt to ask for a quick one-on-one to get more clarification on it.

I can easily imagine scenarios where facial expressions are relevant to a job - any job. But of course, there are plenty of others where it isn't. So ask, find out, and then take an appropriate action (which may be arranging for that person not to do your performance reviews any more, because you work somewhere else) based on what you learn.

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    I would add that an employee's behavior is part of the analysis of performance. We only have third hand evidence of the behavior, but certainly if it was rude or immature, it could be appropriate for the manager to comment. – cdkMoose Dec 27 '16 at 18:55

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?

It's perfectly appropriate for a manager to comment about all aspects of the employee's work - both the good and the bad, both the formal and the informal.

And if facial expressions are an issue in the manager's eye, it's reasonable to mention them.

If so, in what situations might such comment be considered justified?

It's justified if the manager feels it is important enough to mention. That could be because it is distracting others, being noticed in a negative manner by others (clients or coworkers), or other reasons.

Body language in general (including facial expressions like eye-rolls, smirks, etc.) is part of communication. If it is negatively impacting this employee's work/career, it makes sense to bring it up during an annual review (although it's likely more effective to bring it up during regular, perhaps weekly, one-on-one meetings).

How to respond to performance evaluation that includes comments unrelated to job performance?

If you don't understand the comments, ask for clarification until you do.

If you don't understand how to improve what was mentioned in the comments, ask for help until you do understand.

Performance evaluations all include an element of communication. In this case the communication is "here's what you did well, here's what you could do better". As with all communications, if you don't understand it, ask for clarification.

  • Upvoting because I think the comment reflects how (obviously) a category of managers think, and provides clear and concise rationale for your perspective while answering the key questions. I am wondering if the approach stems from regarding facial expressions as an element of communication style as opposed to a natural physiological feature, which yields the assumption that it is a voluntary type of response which can be controlled and "fixed". Whereas to me it appears as more of an involuntary feature of one's physiology which may be very difficult if not impossible to reign in. – A.S Dec 28 '16 at 13:40

What is the relationship between the reviewer and the reviewee? I have seen similar comments being given by someone who considers themselves a 'mentor' to a employee. Her facial expressions may not directly impact this job, but jobs in the future. I would be very interested to know exactly what was said. There is a world of difference between "Watch your face" and "I have noticed that in meetings you sometimes looks like you are bored out of your mind. While I know that you aren't, your facial expressions are something you should think about."

Either way it bears additional discussion. "Hey Boss, I have been thinking about what you said in my performance review about my facial expressions, can we discuss what you are seeing?"

Facial expressions are a part of body language and rightly or wrongly, people do read messages into body language. If cousin Vu looks at me with blood in his eye and says to me "I am glad that you came" with clenched teeth, I don't think he meant what he said :)

I think feedback from management on your body language is appropriate. Having said that, the manager in your post seems to be an outlier because it seems nobody but she is giving your wife's friend's colleague that feedback. I hope that your wife's friend's colleague's performance review includes a set of criteria that is more relevant than this manager's subjective opinion.

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