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The Right Way to Respond to a Bad Performance Review

David has over 15 years of supervisory experience and has extensive knowledge of how to handle personnel issues across many areas.

Not knowing what a bad performance review will say can be the worst part about the evaluation process.

Not knowing what a bad performance review will say can be the worst part about the evaluation process.

An Opportunity to Learn and Improve

Let's face it—you're here because you either received a bad performance review or you expect to receive a bad performance review. It's a horrible situation to be in, being told that you aren't doing a good job.

However, this is an opportunity to improve and shine. Bouncing back from a poor evaluation can really make you stand out in a good way. I'll be honest, I've received a bad performance review. In fact, I would have lost my job in my current career if it wasn't for the poor employee evaluation that gave me the wake-up call I needed to improve my job performance.

Not only do you need to learn and improve following receiving a bad performance review, but your reaction to that review is also just as critical. This article covers what you need to do to prepare for and react to a bad performance review.

Preparing for a Bad Performance Review

Let's say you haven't received your review yet, but you know it's coming. Almost always, employees are aware of the areas they are deficient in. There shouldn't be any surprises in the performance review. However, there is still a bit of prep work involved when getting ready to receive an unfavorable evaluation.

  1. Realize it's not personal. Your boss is doing their job. They are evaluating you based on your work performance. There may be some personal bias in the evaluation, but primarily it's not directed against you personally. It's based on how you perform your job duties. Supervisors don't like to give a poor job evaluation, as it creates more headaches and problems for them, but it's a requirement of the job to let the employee know that their performance is suffering.
  2. Keep your emotions in check. You need to psych yourself out of your own emotions. You need to keep stone-faced. Don't cry, yell, or get upset. The best way to do this is to find a way to calm down before you receive an evaluation, such as going to the restroom for five minutes and then going to see your supervisor. This allows you to wash away the feelings from any work stressors and allows you to calmly collect your thoughts.
  3. Ask your co-workers about their evaluations. Now I don't mean to ask what kind of performance review they received. Instead, ask how the boss conducts the evaluation process, if they were allowed to give feedback, etc. This would give you some insight into what to prepare for. Even if you have received an evaluation from this supervisor before, their process may have changed, so it's good to gather this information ahead of time. If a co-worker gives feedback on their evaluation, great, as that will give you some insight. However, talking about performance evaluations is usually frowned upon.
Reacting angrily to a bad performance review is not the right way to handle the situation.

Reacting angrily to a bad performance review is not the right way to handle the situation.

Reacting to a Bad Performance Review

Your boss has just given you the performance review. How should you react to it? What can you do? This part is one of the most critical parts that will set the mood going forward.

  1. Stay calm. Keep your hands in your lap, holding them together if you need to. Focus on what your boss is saying, no matter how hard it is to hear, and acknowledge everything. Don't frown, but don't smile too much, either. Show that you are attentive to the situation.
  2. Ask to read the performance review. Most performance reviews are on paper. Some may have a checklist of categories that were evaluated, while some could just be a summary. Either way, ask to read the evaluation and all associated information. This will allow you to take it in. Supervisors may only summarize what is in the review when talking to you, so it's best to read, so you see all of the details.
  3. Don't immediately react. You may be tempted to counter a point in the evaluation, state you have proof that something is inaccurate, and so on. Avoid this at all costs. For the most part, what is written in that review is set in stone and can't be changed. Now, keep in mind I said don't immediately react. You can very well react once the review is completed.
  4. Carefully choose your words. You may be given the opportunity to respond verbally to the evaluation. If you are, then think and carefully craft what you want to say. Again, don't rush out of the gate with counter-points as to why the evaluation is wrong. State you understand why you are receiving the performance review but would like the opportunity to discuss what you feel is inaccurate. If given the go-ahead, then state your point. Always be respectful when doing this. Additionally, you may ask if you can provide a written statement to accompany the evaluation. More about that is covered later.
  5. Sign the performance review. Most evaluations require the employee to sign it. Some may give you the option to refuse. I recommend you don't do this. It looks bad, and while it may not be held against you, it isn't the right way you want to start the next review period. Sign it, learn from it, and move on.
Writing down what you need to improve on a sticky note that you can always have nearby can help remind you how you need to improve.

Writing down what you need to improve on a sticky note that you can always have nearby can help remind you how you need to improve.

After a Bad Performance Review

There are steps you can do after you receive a bad performance review. It doesn't mean you should, but you want to have multiple options available to you.

  1. Talk to human resources. Most places of employment have an HR department where you can discuss your concerns. The expectation is that they are neutral in all matters, but sometimes that isn't a reality. This should almost always be your first step if you wish to voice concerns with your performance review. They can look into any issues and advise on the next steps. They may also advise you that the evaluation stands and encourage you to improve your work performance.
  2. Write your rebuttal. If you are given the opportunity to do so (by your supervisor or HR), write a written statement countering the points in the performance review. You should do this on company letterhead and spell out what points you disagree with. This letter should be respectful and not attack your supervisor or the organization directly. It should not point out performance issues in other employees nor contain excuses on why you failed to perform your job duties. It should contain facts and details about why you feel the evaluation isn't accurate.
  3. Talk to your supervisor's supervisor. This one can be a little touchy, but you can request to speak to your supervisor's supervisor about your performance review. In most cases, this supervisor will have your supervisor's back, so it may not pan out how you want. However, a good supervisor listens to the concerns of their employee. They may also counsel you on how to improve your work performance, which is advice you should take.
  4. Contact your union. I really treat this as a last resort, but if you have a union, you can contact them to see if you have any recourse in the review. Again, this may not look good to your supervisor, so only do it if you feel you have truly received a poor evaluation. In the end, it may not change the evaluation, so that you would have done this for nothing.
  5. Learn from the bad performance review. Even when I receive a positive evaluation, there are areas I am told I could grow in to improve myself. I take those areas and jot them down somewhere. I could have them on my daily to-do list, put them on a post-it on my monitor, etc. This allows you to see what areas you were deficient in so you can constantly be reminded of what you need to improve. This is the best way to bounce back and show you can resolve any performance issues.

Even your most talented employees have room for growth in some area, and you're doing your employee a disservice if the sum of your review is: 'You're great!' No matter how talented the employee, think of ways he could grow towards the position he might want to hold two, five, or 10 years down the line.

— Kathryn Minshew

My Experiences With Bad Performance Reviews

As a supervisor I have had to give many performance reviews, and not all of them were positive. In fact, I had some interesting situations come up.

  • A bad performance review significantly improved an employee's performance. At the time, this was one of my worst employees. The individual was unprofessional and tried to get out of work all of the time. Despite counseling the employee, there were no improvements. I had no choice but to provide a special evaluation documenting the poor performance. That bad performance review changed everything. The employee treated their job professionally, did their work, and became a rising star in my office. By the time the employee retired, I was sad to see them go since they contributed so much to the office.
  • An employee cried during their performance review. I had an employee I considered to be friends with. This person was a supervisor, and we frequently talked about issues with employees and issues within the office. However, this employee frequently failed to do something despite being directed to do it multiple times. I had to put that in the performance review. The employee cried and was upset about it. In fact, the employee didn't speak to me unless they had to for a good week. However, that bad review was all that was needed to rectify the issue. I'll note that the rest of the review was positive overall; however, the employee just focused on the one negative.
  • My supervisor checked the wrong boxes. In this evaluation, there was a cover sheet that had checkboxes for different categories. The ratings ranged from excellent to poor, with standard being right in the middle. My supervisor mistakenly checked all of the boxes one step higher than they should have been, giving the employee higher ratings than they were supposed to receive. Even worse, it was going to be a poor performance review in the first place. My supervisor discovered the error and had to conduct the evaluation again. The employee refused to sign it because they felt that the original evaluation should still stand. However, the corrected review still went through.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 David Livermore


FlourishAnyway from USA on May 09, 2020:

I used to investigate complaints of unfairness, harassment and discrimination when performance reviews went off the rails. It’s not always the employee’s fault—sometimes there are terrible managers—but nothing should come as a surprise. Also, it’s hard to convince someone they performed poorly if they don’t already know that. Usually numbers help but even then it’s no guarantee.