Dealing with a Bad Employee Performance Appraisal/Review

August 17, 2007

The ritual of the employee performance appraisal brings with it anxiety and surprise. Sooner or later, almost everyone receives a review that is disappointing and confusing. The immediate reaction to the situation, the accuracy of the subsequent analysis, and follow-up actions can have a major impact on your future performance, evaluations, and compensation. Just in case a bad review comes your way, consider the points below

1. Immediate actions–Getting the bad news

It is not pleasant to hear that performance and contributions have been below standard. However, the immediate reactions are crucial to both understanding and later resolving the performance issues.

First, recognize that the decisions have been made and reviewed with higher levels of management. The decisions will not be reversed, particularly at a review meeting. It is a losing strategy to argue for a change at this time.

Similarly, expressions of hostility and anger are also inappropriate. These emotions tend to make the supervisor defensive, harden negative positions, and “confirm” that the low rating was deserved. Disappointment and frustration can be appropriately expressed. Actually, it is important to inject the right amount of tension into this type of discussion. This meeting should not be easy on anyone.

Two important responses

Listen carefully to the comments of the supervisor. Do not accept vagueness or clichés. Ask detailed questions to clarify the situation. Take notes. This information will be important to really understanding the situation.

Also, take the initiative to establish a follow-up meeting to occur after you have digested the news and have developed some plan to take action.

2. Analysis–Understanding the Situation

Keep in mind that everyone in an organization has their own agenda. Particularly at a performance review meeting, comments can not be automatically taken at face value. An analysis is necessary.

Review your notes and supplement it with other input, particularly the comments of trusted co-workers. Often, the spontaneous comments made by a supervisor in response to a question provide the most revealing information. Weigh all of the information against the scenarios listed below to refine your perspective on the situation:

—7 Scenarios for a Poor Performance Review

Chronic Absolute Underperformance

This possibility for a poor evaluation is difficult to accept, but it is important to look into it fully. It is not sufficient to accept management’s comments. You need to find some trusted people with whom you have worked with and ask for their frank input.

If, in fact, the objective evidence does suggest that your work does not measure up, then it will be a downhill slide until corrective steps are taken. True underperformance is tough to own. However once it is recognized, the next step is to decide whether you are willing and able to make required changes. Sometimes it is just not possible. Alternatively, there may be some other situation you can transfer into where you can excel.

Chronic underperformance is not generally an emergency requiring a rash action; there is time to consider alternatives and take constructive action. However, over a longer time frame, it is unstable to remain in a position where your contributions do not measure up to the norm.

One-Time Project Failure

Not every major project works out according to the objective. Time and conditions have their way of disrupting the best plans and actions. If this happened in your work for the review period, accept the result and have confidence in your ability to return to a high level of performance. However, a run of bad luck begs for another explanation. This is no place to hide.

Valuing Different Activities

From the meeting discussion, there should be a good idea of what was rewarded. Compare this with what you actually accomplished. Sometimes the two are different. Of all of the things that you do in your job, the supervisor is most concerned with approximately 20% of your work. Know what that 20% is! These activities carry the most weight. Check to be sure that your crucial priorities are the same as the supervisors.

Not Trusted by Management

Performance can be fine, but if, for rational or irrational reasons, you are not trusted, the performance review may be their opportunity to send the message. In this case, working harder to improve performance will have no consequence. Once trust is lost, it is difficult to regain and then only at a great cost. The choices are either accept the situation and wait for current management to move on or to find a new situation in which this bias is not against you.

Relative Underperformance

Most organizations, whether they admit it or not, use a forced ranking system. Similar employees are grouped together, ranked from first to last, and reward appropriately. In this system, it is the relative performance that is measured. The superstars come out on top, with the star performers below them.

The argument that you a star in a group of superstars gets you nowhere. Just accept the situation as a short term loss. If you really are a star, just do good work and your light will be seen, either in this group or in a different setting.

Arbitrary Positioning

A cousin of relative underperformance. In some organizations with uniformly strong employees, misguided management may choose to rotate people to the top or bottom over a period of time in order to keep everyone relatively happy. Is it your turn? No one will confirm this to you.

Easy Mark

As noted previously, in a stack rank system, some individual have to come out at the bottom. Weak managers occasionally select the person, other things being equal, they can most easily assign it to. That is why it is important to keep some tension in the meeting. It may have happened this time, but already you need to lay the ground work so that it doesn’t happen again.

3. Strive for a Balanced Response

No matter what your analysis and conclusions are, do not do anything rash. Actions taken in anger or haste invariably lead to a poor outcome for the individual. On the other hand, a bad performance review cannot be accepted without a response. Use your resources—the information that management has stated, comments from trusted co-workers, the list of scenarios above, and your own intuitive ideas in order to do begin to change the situation.

Then, a poor evaluation is just a temporary set-back and a wake-up call to both fully understand the situation and take control of it.  Or you can make it worse.  (Stuck with a Poor Performance Review–Making It Worse.)

Others on this topic: Struggling to Give a Good Performance Review Maintaining Credibility

Employee Performance Appraisals Ranking Methods –Lessons from Arrows Paradox