How to Handle an Unfair or Negative Performance Review at Work
Unfair Performance Reviews: Boss Man Says You're A Cowpoke?
Saddle Up, Cowboy: It's Performance Evaluation Time
Saddle up, cowboy. It's performance review time again, and pardner, you're worried that it ain't lookin' so good. Maybe you've been told that your "Performance does not meet expectations" or you've received some less-than-glowing feedback about your work style.
Awww, shucks! Those types of criticisms sure can hurt the heart of even the toughest cowboy. But you ain't no cowpoke.
You're a white-hat kinda guy. You spit shine your boots and try not to hurt anyone with your spurs (not even even that dimwit in the next cubicle). You mosey on in to work ... mostly every day, and more or less on time. You put in an honest day's work ... with a little bit of Internet time in between and maybe a personal call or two. (A cowboy's gotta stay connected!)
Heck, you're The Cowboy of Accounting (or Customer Service ... or whatever you do). But now it looks like that Boss Man ain't seeing things straight. And you're starting to see him as a dang rodeo clown. Worse yet, you want to hog tie that feller and kick some horse sense into him with your spurs.
Dagdabbit. You got some bad feedback. Whatcha gonna do now? Let me help. I'm an HR ranch hand, and this ain't my first rodeo.
Hold Your Horses, Cowboy
Have you ever received negative job performance feedback?
5 Signs That You're Headed For Performance Trouble
As a former HR professional with two Fortune 500 companies, I have seen my share of employee performance issues. Many of them boiled down to sub-par employee/manager communication or poor job fit. Others were attributable to legitimate fairness complaints.
Here are 5 signs that you could be headed for trouble (i.e., watch your job):
- There's a paper trail. There are recent, documented complaints against you that have been lodged by customers, other managers, etc. Or, your manager is issuing formal-sounding emails that recap your mistakes, conflicts with coworkers, or missed deadlines.
- Your performance review meeting is scheduled to take place off-site -- unless, of course, this is typical for your employer.
- HR or multiple layers of management sit in on your performance review session.
- You're no longer included in key meetings or communication—as if you're already gone. There's no good explanation either.
- You are required to complete a Performance Improvement Plan, or you must participate in more frequent assessments of your performance than others. (HR types call this a "get well plan.")
First, Just Listen
Whoa there, Cowboy! Hold them horses! Hearing less than glowing feedback about yourself can make you feel defensive and angry. It can also hurt—sometimes because it's true.
While you may want to go shootin' off your mouth by diverting blame, giving excuses, or getting into a debate with your boss ... don't do it. If you're too quick on the trigger, you could shoot yourself in the foot, creating a crisis from mere constructive criticism. You could cause some major damage to your career this way.
First, just listen. Really listen. Seek to understand exactly what your boss is saying. (Did he really call you "cowpoke," or did it just feel like that?)
Bosses often dislike performance reviews as much as employees do. After all, it's difficult to provide constructive criticism when you know it will upset someone or believe it will be ignored. Let your boss complete his thoughts rather than generating mental rebuttals while he's talking. Demonstrate the respect you wish to receive by just hearing him out.
Even Your Boss Deserves To Be Heard
Ask Questions To Clarify Your Understanding
We have all received negative feedback at some point, so put your big boy britches on and figure out what type of criticism your boss is providing you.
- Are these areas you need to develop to become more promotable? More competent in your current role?
- Is this a first formal notice that there is a pattern of concern with your performance?
- Or, is this your last chance to correct a severe performance deficiency before being fired?
There are three basic types of negative performance feedback, and they vary in meaning, severity, and what you need to do about them (see table below).
Also analyze the intent behind the feedback by considering factors such as:
- the boss' body language and the tone of his message (i.e., did he sound like he was delivering an ultimatum, or was he much friendlier?)
- whether this is the first time you've received this feedback—especially in documented form
- the presence of witnesses at the time of your review (e.g., other layers of management or HR)
- the boss' positive or negative references to your future with the company
- company policy on performance management - in some companies back-to-back low ratings automatically result in an employee's discharge of employment
- company culture - in some organizations, any written negative feedback is a career-ender, whereas other companies actually require that managers include "developmental opportunity" areas for even the best performers.
If you are confused at all about what the feedback means for you, ask directly whether your job is in jeopardy (e.g., "Am I going to be fired?").
Negative Feedback: Not Always An Ominous Sign
3 Basic Types of Negative Performance Feedback
Type of Negative Performance Feedback
What You Need To Do
An Ultimatium often comes in the form of a Performance Improvement Plan, an Out-Of-Cycle Performance Review, a Last Chance Agreement, or several Negative Performance Reviews in a row (with limited progress since the last review).
"unacceptable performance;" "failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement will result in further corrective action up to and including termination of employment"
The writing is on the wall. Work through any performance improvement plan to buy yourself time while you look for another job. Be preemptive by checking out unemployment regulations in your state.
A Trending Downward Notification often comes in the form of a regular performance review, giving a previously good performing employee initial notice that his/her performance shows a pattern of concern.
performance "minimally (or marginally) meeting expectations"; "performance does not meet expectations"
Thank your boss for his feedback and commit to performance improvement. Develop a specific action plan with target dates and check-in times then double down your effort. Show him this was just a "blip."
Development Needed Feedback is simply a sign you're not perfect and have room for growth. It can be verbal and often is written into performance reviews of even the best employees.
"opportunity for improvement;" "further development needed"
Develop an action plan to address areas needing growth so they don't hold you back in your career.
Cowboys Don't Cry: Stay Unemotional and Respectful
Dig Down On the Details
You can't address an issue if you don't clearly understand what it is. So make sure your interpretation aligns with your boss' intended message. Stay calm and ask for details, as needed. Resist comparing your performance to that of coworkers.
Also, watch your tone to ensure that you communicate that you are not challenging the truthfulness of his feedback. Try to instead express curiosity. Ask if he can help you by providing some specific examples so you can better understand where he's coming from.
Good managers typically keep performance logs on their employees throughout the year, recording critical incidents. They do this so they can provide employees with accurate performance feedback -- both positive and negative.
A good manager will refrain from overly general feedback, and he'll be able to produce specific examples that illustrate his message. He also usually won't mind doing so, if your approach is collaborative.
How To Move Forward With An Action Plan For Progress
Once you understand your boss' constructive criticisms, draft a written action plan that addresses each area. Include a timetable, specific action steps you will take, and how you can measure progress.
Then, schedule on-going performance check-ins with your boss (e.g., weekly, monthly, or quarterly, depending on how remedial your development plan is).
This keeps you accountable for progress while encouraging the flow of performance dialog throughout the year. If he doesn't provide a midyear rating, ask for an informal one. ("If you had to rate my performance at this point in the year, what would it be?")
With an action plan for progress, you shouldn't be surprised next year by his feedback. You'll have a whole year to address your "areas needing development" and convince him how he's helped you become a better employee. (You're a kiss-up, Cowboy!)
Offering Rebuttals: Don't Squat With Your Spurs On
The Choice To Respond
Ideally, annual performance reviews should involve no surprises. But sometimes performance review meetings make it clear that you and the boss are miles apart in your perceptions of your job performance.
When there is a wide gulf in perceptions, one or more of the following could be going on:
- you and your manager haven't scheduled open, ongoing performance discussions throughout the year (generally, quarterly works well)
- you haven't listened to previous feedback
- your boss is new, has performance issues himself, or isn't fully aware of your contributions
- there is a political or personal agenda, or
- you're not as good as you think you are.
While certainly there are bully bosses, my experience is that most employees jump to the conclusion that there's a political or personal agenda at play.
A large body of psychological research, however, indicates that employee self-ratings tend to only modestly agree with ratings provided by supervisors or peers. At the same time, supervisors and peers' judgments tend to agree highly with one another.1
What this means is that you may have performance blind spots and your boss may actually be doing you a favor by providing you constructive criticism. If you have any doubts about whether the boss' feedback is on target, consider asking a trusted friend or confidante who you know will tell you like it is. This person should be comfortable giving you negative feedback without you becoming upset.
Quick Tip: Keep Your Own Performance File
Always keep an up-to-date performance file on yourself that includes key achievements and experiences during the current performance cycle. It can help you make sense of your boss' feedback.
Examples of what to include:
- performance objectives for the year and progress against them
- any awards or certifications achieved
- copies of corrective action
- letters of appreciation (or complaint) about you
- emails regarding important issues/conflicts with your boss, coworkers, and customers
- copies of your key performance metrics
- interim performance feedback (e.g., emails documenting results of quarterly or midyear performance discussions)
Yee-Haw! Giddy Up Now, Cowboy!
Unfair Performance Evaluations: How To Push Back
If you're still absolutely convinced that your boss' feedback is unfair, here are some ideas for pushing back.
Begin with an end in mind.
Always know the solution that you seek before starting. Do you want some aspect of the written performance document changed before you sign it? Do you simply want to be heard?
Schedule a follow-up discussion.
Tell your boss some of the information comes as a surprise (if that's true) and that you need time to think about what he's said. Ask for a copy of your performance evaluation so that you can better process the information.
Know what aspect of the review you disagree with.
Most organizations' performance systems involve not only an overall rating (e.g., a "2" on a 5-point scale) but also sub-ratings (e.g., communication skills, initiative). Often, there are also supporting comments. Managers who are overly blunt in their written comments can easily offend employees without meaning to.
If you seek changes to your performance document, know that managers often have more flexibility in adjusting their comments and sub-ratings without discussing it with HR or their boss. However, changes in overall ratings are often another story. Your argument better be awful convincing if that's what you're after.
Good Luck, Pardner!
Assess whether the feedback represents a difference of perception, or if there are instead factual untruths, errors, or key omissions.
If it's a matter of perception, the boss' perception probably matters more. Ramp up your persuasion skills during the upcoming year and work on closing the gap in perceptions.
If your performance review is based on important factual errors, the information needs to be corrected. Use the time between your meetings with him to assemble specific factual evidence regarding what really happened.
Here's an example of performance feedback based on inaccurate data: A manager provided negative feedback to an employee for sending a client a written report that she had not cleared through him first. However, the employee provided a copy of an email showing that the manager approved the document. His criticism was inaccurate. (This was an actual case, and the manager apologized for the error.)
Anyone can make mistakes. Allow your manager to save face, if possible.
Understand what your signature on the performance document means.
At some point, you'll probably be asked to sign your performance review. In signing the document, know whether you are acknowledging that you agree with the assessment, or that simply that you've had the performance discussion. If you still believe the review to be unfair, most organizations have a process for filing a formal complaint.
Tread carefully if this is how you want to proceed, but your options are generally along these lines:
- respectfully refusing to sign the document as is -- especially one that indicates that you agree with the assessment or one which is based on inaccurate information
- signing it with the following notation "I disagree with this opinion and reserve the right of rebuttal, which will follow" (request that HR attach this and include it in your personnel file)
- sending an email to your boss that recaps your performance review discussions and disagreement. You may want to copy HR and/or your boss' manager. This should jump-start the complaint process.
Cowboy Wit and Wisdom
Cowboys have their own code of ethics, as demonstrated by some of the following Cowboy Proverbs with unknown origins (unless otherwise specified). Consider these in regard to performance review feedback.
"Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction."
"Talk slowly, think quickly."
"The easiest way to eat crow is while it's still warm. The colder it gets, the harder it is to swaller."
"The biggest troublemaker you'll probably ever have to deal with watches you shave his face in the mirror every morning."
"Letting the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back."
- Will Rogers, American cowboy and humorist
"Never miss a good chance to shut up."
- Will Rogers
"It is easier to ride a horse in the direction it's going."
"There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence."
- Will Rogers
"Tip your hat when you get beat, but when you win don't show anybody up."
- Joe Torre, American baseball player
"Never kick a cowchip on a hot day."
- Will Rogers
We've All Faced Negative And Unfair Feedback
Only You Can Decide
When it comes to handling unfair or negative feedback, only you can decide whether you have an issue that is important enough to warrant such measures.
Some employees may simply need to develop thicker skins. They are satisfied with voicing their concerns and negotiating minor edits.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are those who allege that they face illegal discrimination. They believe their entire performance assessment is a sham, and they demand that it be entirely re-crafted, from the overall ratings to the written comments.
We've all faced feedback that is negative and feels unfair. But this is your career and your life. The choice is yours. Good luck, Cowboy! Now giddy up and get back to work.
Can You Spot The Signs These Cowboys Ain't Real?
For a detailed explanation of why these cowboys are probably not the real deal, click here.
- First, simply listen rather than diverting blame, providing excuses, or launching into a lively debate with your manager. Seek to understand his feedback.
- Clarify your understanding by determining the general type of feedback (i.e., ultimatum, trending downward notification, or opportunity for improvement). Also consider your boss' intent.
- Ask for specific examples to help you better understand your manager's perspective.
- Remain calm and respectful.
- Develop a specific action plan to address constructive criticisms. Arrange periodic check-ins to close the gap on your performance and perceptions.
- To refute an appraisal you believe is unfair, have a specific goal in mind and understand precisely what wording or ratings you object to.
- Schedule a follow-up discussion to provide evidence that supports your perspective.
- Determine whether you will sign your performance document (with or without a rebuttal).
- Only you can decide what is best for you and your career.
Cowboys Herding Cats: Do You Feel Like This Sometimes?
1Harris, Michael M., and John Schaubroeck. "A Meta-Analysis Of Self-Supervisor, Self-Peer, and Peer-Supervisor Ratings." Personnel Psychology 14, no. 1 (1988): 43-62. DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.1988.tb00631.x.
Cowboy Up, My Friend!
Questions & Answers
Should I give my assistant a performance counseling the same day she receives her annual review?
An annual review covers an entire year's performance, but if you've done what you should have as a manager -- had ongoing performance discussions with the employee throughout the prior year -- then there should be no surprises. She should know what to expect on that annual review document. Still, for an employee, seeing it in writing, especially if it's less than glowing feedback, that can feel like a big hit.
The issue of her recent performance misstep that you need to counsel her on is a separate (although related) matter. It should be handled in a separate conversation for two primary reasons. It happened in a different performance cycle, not during the last annual formal performance appraisal period, right? You also want to provide immediate corrective action on recent behavior and not confuse her regarding what information that went into your performance rating. Within the counseling session, you can use some of the same language as you do on the performance appraisal if she has a continuing problem with a certain skill area (e.g., attention to detail, communication skills).
Handle the corrective action as soon as possible and document your conversation. You can then do the performance appraisal later in the week. When you do the performance appraisal be clear what the evaluation period was. I hope that helps.
What can you do when you get a negative review after filing a Workman's Comp claim, and they blame you for what happened?
You can refuse to sign any unfair discipline or performance document, noting that it's the consequence of your Workers Compensation claim. You can also consult a Workers Comp lawyer in your area. This is especially prudent if the stakes are high for you, such as demotion or job loss, on top of already being injured!
While there is no U.S. federal law prohibiting retaliation against Workers Compensation filers, most states do forbid it. Workers Comp varies by state so check your state law.
Generally, however, one must meet these four criteria to demonstrate retaliation:
1) be a covered employee entitled to Workers Comp benefits -- rather than, say, an independent contractor, another company's employee, etc.;
2) show that you engaged in some protected activity regarding Workers Comp such as filing a claim or a workplace injury report;
3) show that you suffered an adverse employment action as a result of your filing the Workers Comp claim, such as being discharged, demoted, formally disciplined, having your pay decreased, etc.; and
4) demonstrate that this adverse action was motivated by your Workers Comp filing or other covered Workers Comp activity.
Note that the reason why employers might be motivated to retaliate against Workers Comp claimants is to keep their premiums low and to discourage other employees from filing claims. There's a lot of pressure on some companies to handle workplace injuries through one's private insurance instead of the Workers Compensation system.
On the other hand, please beware that companies do use performance reviews and violations of company policy as successful defenses against retaliation claims. What that means is that if you were in ANY way responsible for your injury (e.g., not wearing personal protective equipment, engaging in horseplay, not following the lockout/tag out procedure, etc.), then the company would probably use this to justify its action.
The bottom line is that you know what happened with your workplace accident and whether you bear any legitimate responsibility. Let that guide you.
© 2014 FlourishAnyway