Should an employee performance review be one big love letter?

Maybe so, according to Rachel Feintzeig, who wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, “Everything Is Awesome! Why You Can’t Tell Employees They’re Doing a Bad Job.” The idea is that many employers are getting away from providing constructive criticism in performance reviews and are “accentuating the positive.”

My immediate reaction was, “Oh, here we go, catering to those spoiled Millennials again.”

My second thought was, What else is new?

My third thought was, This probably is a very good idea.

Conventional legal wisdom is that employers should be frank in performance evaluations. Be sure to point out everything that the employee does wrong, recognize that even the best employee has room for improvement, and don’t ever mute your criticism. Legally, a termination decision is easier to defend in court if the plaintiff’s problems were addressed in performance reviews.

Great advice. Only problem is, nobody follows it.

Even if you aren’t sending your employee a Valentine’s Day love letter once a year, your performance reviews are probably not nearly critical enough to justify a termination.

And you know what? They shouldn’t be. What makes “legal” sense doesn’t necessarily make sense when you’re dealing with real people.

Has this ever happened to you? You do a presentation for a group of 20. You get a standing ovation and high fives from 19. The 20th person mentions one little thing you got wrong.

Which do you remember? The 19 kudos, or the one criticism? The one criticism, of course! You stay awake half the night trying to figure out what you could have done better, and the other half meditating on what a jerk that person was and just where does he get off, anyway? This is human nature, and most people react the same way to an overall positive performance review that has a few criticisms mixed in. It’s not just “spoiled” Millennials who hate getting negative performance reviews: Gen Xers, Gen Yers, and Boomers hate them, too. Even The Greatest Generation hates them (although they are way too tough to admit it).

As a result, most managers and supervisors know better than to say what they really think. This is how “Needs to Improve” turned into “Development Opportunities.”

One of the points in the Feintzeig article is that negativity in performance reviews causes employees to dread getting their reviews – never a good thing – and the negative comments can be counterproductive. On the other hand, positive comments and encouragement can inspire them to go on to better and better things.

So, since you’re probably not going to give a realistic appraisal anyway, maybe it’s better to simply embrace the love, and be as positive as you honestly can be in the annual performance evaluation. You can always deal with minor issues informally through your normal, day-to-day interaction. When you have a seriously poor performer, deal with it through a Performance Improvement Plan. (By the time you are fed up enough to issue a PIP, you are not likely to have a problem being frank.) If the employee engages in misconduct, use your disciplinary process. But think about giving your figurative hugs and Valentines to everyone else.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and happy President’s Day weekend!