I’m still emotional after a bad performance review

This was originally published on August 15, 2009.

A reader writes:

Some background: I am in my mid-twenties and I work as an assistant for a small, nationally renowned non-profit. I love a lot about my job: I get to research topics I love, and I get to apply skills that satisfy me. I have a heavy workload that has increased substantially over the past few months. I often work straight through the day without a lunch break, stay late when I need to, bring work home when I need to, and check my work email from home constantly.

I had my first ever annual performance review last month. Before this formal meeting, my boss and I had met sporadically, and our discussions tended to focus on particular projects she had planned for me. The only explicit feedback I received about my work was in November, and it was that I was “doing excellent work.” Since that comment, I had not received any pointed feedback about my performance, negative or positive. Instead she would casually ask, “How’s it going?” and I would say something like “I’m working on a lot right now, but I feel good about everything.” As my review crept closer, I was naturally somewhat anxious, but felt I had reason to believe that I was going to receive generally good feedback.

Boy, was I in for a surprise: my boss told me that there was an issue with follow through, citing a few examples of minor tasks I had failed to execute, and said she was worried a pattern was emerging. She said I needed to participate more at staff meetings, and that I’m not a team player. My grade was “needs improvement.” I felt completely blindsided, and was so shocked and hurt by the feedback that I burst into tears. She also asked me if I’m really serious about working in this field. In my emotionally vulnerable and unstable state, I admitted that, while I do value a lot about my job, I sometimes think about other paths. My boss told me we would meet again in a month to reevaluate my standing.

I took the review really badly: I was on the verge of tears for the remainder of the workweek and couldn’t sleep at night due to anxiety. I felt like I had been working quite hard, that for each of her examples of my failures, there were dozens of things that I had executed well and promptly. My job can be very stressful, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well. I thought I was succeeding; to be told the opposite was demoralizing and mortifying. Looking back on my tears makes me cringe; I fear that I came off unstable and incapable of hearing criticism.

I’ve reflected on my feedback and concluded that some of it was valid. The next week I requested a follow-up meeting with my boss: I told her that I had let some things slip due my increased workload, and that I was going to make an extra effort to make sure nothing falls through the cracks in the future. I asked her for more regular feedback, suggesting that she call to check in with me like she does with my colleague (my boss works three-day weeks). This plan seems to be helping, and I’ve gotten some good feedback related to my areas in need of improvement.

But my despair persists: my department is very small, and I’m now concerned that everyone perceives me in the way my boss described me. I feel sheepish and embarrassed around my colleagues. I’m also worried that my boss shared my emotional response to her criticism with them, which compounds my paranoia. Finally, I’m concerned that my admission to considering other lines of work set off an alarm in my boss’s head. Is there anything I can do, besides doing my job well, to improve my standing? I’m worried about being blindsided again.

It sounds like you’re doing all the right things here, aside from being really, really stressed out about it. Being open-minded about the feedback, asking for a follow-up meeting, and requesting more feedback were all exactly the right ways to respond to this.

Based on your boss’ feedback, it sounds like you were doing the big things well, but forgetting about some of the little things. If you were letting smaller tasks slip through the cracks, she was right to point out that it was becoming a pattern — but this is exactly the kind of performance issue that’s really easy to fix, and she probably knows that. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve had to have that conversation with — it’s probably the most common issue I have to address with people. The vast majority of people are able to fix it once they’re focused on it — and you sound like someone who’s fixing it.

Now, I’m not sure what she meant by “not a team player,” and if you’re not sure either, get details from her about that one so that you know specifically what she’d like to see you do differently.

But remember — this is what bosses do: they give feedback and tell you about ways you could do better. It’s normal.

It can also be a shock if you’re not used to it. I think many smart people go through this right around your age: If you’re like a lot of smart people, up until now you’ve been used to hearing exclusively positive feedback. You were smart, school and peers affirmed that, and it’s part of your self-identity. And then when you start working and come across a boss who sees areas where she wants you to improve, it can be really jarring. It can make you doubt yourself or think you’re in the wrong job. Don’t think that way. Instead, take the feedback for what is it: matter of fact information about areas where you need to focus your attention more. Take that feedback and use it, and you’ll find that stretching yourself to grow in that way can be pretty gratifying.

Seriously. Don’t freak out. You’re on the case here, and it sounds like it’s going to work out fine.

About your two other concerns —

It’s unlikely that the rest of your department has even noticed or thought much about the points your boss made. Your boss’ job is to pay attention to your work and think about these things; theirs is not, and I promise you they’re not scrutinizing you like that. Most of the time when I talk to an employee about performance issues, the issues are ones that their coworkers wouldn’t have much way of knowing about. It sounds the same here. And unless your boss is hugely unprofessional and a jerk, she didn’t tell them that you had an emotional response originally — I can’t tell you how inappropriate it would have been to do that, and unless you have some specific reason to believe she did, err on the side of assuming she conducted herself normally in that regard (meaning that her conversation with you is none of your coworkers’ business).

And last, regarding whether your boss is alarmed that you acknowledged that you sometimes consider other lines of work — unless you’re working in the mafia or something, this is not a big deal. If it’s bothering you, go back to her and tell her that your conversation made you realize how much you want to stay in this field and ask her for her continued help via feedback and advice.

But really, I think what’s going on here is that you’re smart and conscientious and horrified by what I suspect is the sort of feedback you’ve never encountered before. Keep telling yourself that this is normal, bosses have these kinds of conversations with people all the time, and generally the issues raised get fixed and people just roll forward. Not a disaster, not even close to a disaster. You’re doing all the right things, and now you just need to stop beating yourself up.

Good luck!

{ 80 comments… read them below }

  1. Overkill

    The supervisor more than likely heard those same very words at some point in her career and she survived.

  2. David

    It should be noted that the boss really dropped the ball in at least one respect: the OP’s review shouldn’t have been the first time she was hearing about these issues, particularly if the only other feedback she had received up to that point was that she was “doing excellent work.” How that statement turns into “needs improvement” by review time is odd.

    1. JustSomeone

      Yes, this. My first performance review was like that – apparently I was supposed to understand that when Boss said things like “Alright! It looks like we’re going places!” she actually meant “F-ing FINALLY we are making some progress here, you are working soooo slowly” (which, for the record, I really wasn’t: I wasn’t the fastest of the lot, but I was working much, much faster than my predecessor). So when the review came and she was all ‘I have the feeling you’re slacking off, you really need to pull your socks up, I’m not sure you’re passionate about this field’ I was like WOAH. Yes, most (not all!) of what she said were indeed points that I could improve on but apparently these things had been bothering her for months – so why not say it earlier?

      1. Vicki

        Perhaps because they had _not_ been bothering her for months (or not enough to say something) but when she sat down to write the review, they all came back, one at a time.

        Some managers think a review is a retrospective: In September you were a day late on a deadline. Hmmmm. You had three typos in December. I sense a pattern of Not Caring!

    2. MF

      Agreed. There really shouldn’t be surprises in the review (barring any situation where someone has previously been told but disregards what they are hearing).

      1. WorkingAsDesigned

        Yes! If AAM has done anything for me (and it’s done a lot), it’s helped me to become even more appreciative that my manager is a strong believer that nothing should ever come as a surprise during a performance review.

      2. Mary

        Agree with David – the same thing happened to me when I was new to a position. I felt blindsided and had no idea. I found out when it was announced that employees would receive pay raises (without a review) in their next paycheck (this was way before direct deposit). When I got my paycheck and didn’t see a raise, I called HR and they were the ones to inform me that my manager had issues with me. I told them I had never been informed that there were any kind of issues. Well they told him I called and was upset. He in turn met with me and explained what his issues were. One stupid one was that people would tell him I would go to another cubicle and sit and read. I explained to the idiot that yes I did that (as it was my lunch hour and I was dieting; so wasn’t eating). What I couldn’t understand was why didn’t he ask me why I did that. He also brought our some very valid points and I worked to resolve them. The good news was he ended up quitting anyway. But the review still came back to haunt me as another group wanted me and that manager questioned my review. I explained and, to my credit, they didn’t think highly of him so they transferred me and I ended up staying with the company for over 10 years. So don’t stress OP, most people have received a bad review at some point in their career.

      3. Shortie

        This is an important distinction. I once had an employee say she was blindsided during a performance review, but she knew she was missing deadlines repeatedly, often, and for no good reason, and we had talked about it numerous times. It is important as a manager to provide very clear feedback, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how clear you are. People hear what they want to hear.

    3. Karowen

      Ditto – It’s not the criticism, it’s being blindsided by it. I had a situation once where a woman in my company (not my boss, thankfully) literally told me that the presentation I had created for her was excellent and exactly what she needed, and then went to my boss and told her how horrible it was, how horrible a worker I was for not realizing that there were issues, and that my boss needed to fix it. When my boss came down on me (over email – she wasn’t a great boss), I literally burst into tears because I was so mortified and angry.

      From my perspective, the key here is that the boss needed to have a more consistent conversation with the OP – Saying everything is excellent and then letting everything slide until you come in for a review is just a way to set everyone up for failure.

    4. Lamington

      This is so true and that happened to my coworker. our manager told him people complained how he handled a project a year ago and he had never knew about this issue. unfortunately for him he was rated low on performance due to this incident and was let go short after.

      1. Limon

        This is why we need to just say things upfront, and in a decent and friendly way. I teach and the subject matter is very overwhelming and time consuming for most students. They are scared of failing and often not sure how to be successful.

        Anatomy is a very difficult subject for many students, and with a future career in healthcare riding on your grade most students are very apprehensive. Knowing that, as a teacher (like a manager) I say to them clearly this is what you meed to change and this is how you can change it. And then I remain a constant support for them through the process. They are building a strong foundation for future, more challenging courses and their skills are as important as the subject matter.

        This semester, the students are all racing to the moon and are very strong and I am very glad to see their success.

        Managers are largely responsible for the outcome of their employees, and I think good feedback (positive or negative) along the way and allowing the person to absorb and learn from it, is key.

    5. Ann Furthermore

      Yes, yes, 1000 times yes! No one should ever hear critical feedback for the first time during a performance review. One of the Very Big VP’s of the parent company I work talked about this during one of his visits to the subsidiary where I work, and he said this exact same thing to all the managers.

      I had a very bad boss do this once. He had quite a list of things he thought I did poorly, but did he ever bother to have even a 5 minute conversation with me about them? No, he did not. Instead, he ambushed me during my performance review. OMG it was awful.

      The things the OP were criticized for sound like things that were addressed and resolved as soon as they were brought to her attention. They were probably that could have been dealt with long before the performance review, and then the review could have actually been valuable time spent for both the employee and the manager.

    6. AB

      +1 I am a firm believer that nothing should be a surprise in formal reviews (same goes for disciplinary letters).

      Kudos to the OP for asking for regular meetings wither her boss. If employees aren’t getting the feedback they need, they should always feel comfortable asking for this.

    7. Jenny S.

      Agreed X 100. One of the (many) reasons I quit my last job was that my new manager never – NEVER – gave me feedback during the year she oversaw me, even when I asked for it, which was often. Then blindsided me with a 2/4 on my annual review. And denied me a raise, even for cost-of-living. This was preceded by annual 3.5s from my previous manager of 5 years, who consistently gave me feedback. If you don’t tell someone what you want them to do, or what they’re doing right and wrong, or could improve upon, it’s not fair to give them a negative review out of nowhere.

    8. Vicki

      You never can know what goes on in their heads.

      I had a contract position, where realtime feedback was positive. I even had a meeting with the manager about what I would be doing after the current project finished. Two weeks later (Two weeks!), I was called into a 1:1 to be told “You’re not working fast enough and we’re going to cancel the contract and let you go. Finish out the week.”

      Talk about blindsided.

      Apparently, some higher-up VP decided that he wasn’t getting his application as fast as the App Fairy should have delivered it and Poof! I was out. Next contestant?!

      I also have mentioned perviously in this forum the manager I had who told me “I need to put something in the Needs Improvement section” (as an excuse for making up a completely fabricated set of events.

  3. anon-2

    If you get negative feedback – but it’s constructive criticism – and you’re young and starting out, don’t let it get ya. Accept it and grow with it. And when the subject is revisited – then make judgements.

    When you have to be worried is when you’re doing a great job and a profoundly negative appraisal comes along as a complete utter surprise (a “purpose pitch”, versus a “performance appraisal”) then it’s time to worry.

    1. Vicki

      I’ve been part of a LinkedIn discussion recently on the theme that “There is no such thing as ‘Constructive Criticism’.” Constructive feedback, yes. Criticism.. no. Just look at the definition:

      Criticism: (n) the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.

      synonyms: censure, condemnation, denunciation, disapproval, disparagement, opprobrium, fault-finding, attack, broadside, stricture, recrimination

      1. L McD

        Surely it’s constructive to learn about your faults and mistakes, though? I think some people take the concept and execute it poorly, but I don’t think it’s an oxymoron.

  4. Abbey

    Yes, the idea of only hearing positive feedback and then being shocked in the work world when you hear that there’s need for improvement happened to me, too. Glad to know I’m not alone.

    1. Limon

      Yes, add me to this experience. When I was younger I didn’t understand that dynamic. Seems very unfair really, and – it is.

      That’s why today I really make an effort to be in contact and honest all along. Your advice might be neutral really, (“please change this behavior”) but how you say it is the more important thing.

      Another thing is: is your work being criticized, or are you being criticized. In other words, “don’t do that, do this please,” is very different from: “you are not a team player,” or “you just don’t get it.” Sometimes, it’s really our personality that is being criticized under the guise of a review, and that’s maybe where some real pain comes in. Because, the issue is really very different.

      1. Vicki

        Contact al along doesn’t help if you have one of those managers where something is brought up (and fixed) at the time, but they drab it back up from the cellar at review time.

        “Twice in the past year you came to me to ask for help in dealing with a difficult situation with another team. This leads me to the conclusion that you’re not a team player and don’t want to be helpful”.

        (At the same time, my 360 feedback from peers and in-house customers (I did support) was so consistent: ‘Vicki is helpful’ across the board that my managers generally complained that they’d like to see something, anything, unique from at least one person.)

  5. sam

    This reminds me of a really good speech on of my professors gave on our first day of law school (at a top 10 school). He noted that every single person in the room had, been, until that point, an “A” student. We probably wouldn’t be in the room if we hadn’t. But [law school] graded first year students on a mandatory curve, which meant that some of us, no matter how smart we thought we were, were going to end up with Bs and Cs that semester.

    1. Overkill

      Apparently, MIT awards Pass/Fail in the first year because too their students cannot handle getting anything less than an A.

      1. Kate

        Minor quibble, as an MIT alum: it’s not because we can’t handle not getting an A. The first year is pass/no record (which might have changed is the past 15 years since I’ve been a freshman) to remove the pressure from students to get all A’s in their first year and to help them focus on learning and getting used to being at MIT, which is a very different learning enviornment from anything most people have been exposed to before. MIT does not want us to be grade focused but that is a hard thing for most MIT students to unlearn.

        1. Stephanie

          +1

          My MIT alum friends also said it was good for getting them to take academic risks. They said the pass/no record thing made it less daunting to try a class outside their intended major.

          1. Annie O

            Yes, exactly. You feel more comfortable exploring a variety of courses.

            Also, it helps when placement exams or high school courses inaccurately determine your ability. This happened to me – painfully – with Physics III. I scraped by with a pass, but a C would have hurt a lot.

            1. Overkill

              I thought it stemmed, at least in part, from a case in which a student self-immolated and died in 2000 or so?

            2. Stephanie

              Ugh, yeah. I sailed through AP Chemistry and thought “Oh hey! I can totally take organic chemistry freshman year.” I think I was able to understand the material, I just wasn’t prepared for the amount of work required or the lack of structure. Didn’t help we had a prof who loathed premeds and wanted to make the class as awful as possible. I barely passed by the skin of my teeth (as in like a C-, not a humblebrag B+ or something).

          1. Stephanie

            I’m sure there’s totally a PR aspect that helps soften the image of MIT, but it does seem to have a lot of benefits for students.

        2. Alum

          Another MIT alum, concurring. It’s intended to ease the transition from high school. For me, I probably wouldn’t have tried differential equations if it had been a regularly graded class instead of P/NR.

          Also, for the last ~10 years, fall semester is P/NR while spring semester is A/B/C/NR.

      2. the gold digger

        Whereas at my alma mater, they deliberately made the first physics 101 course so hard that you could get an A with only 30%. They wanted everyone to realize that they weren’t the smartest kids in the class any more and would have to work a lot harder than they did in high school.

        1. Stephanie

          Huh. That makes a lot more sense now. I worked my tail off to get a B+ in PHYS 101. That class was an awful amount of work.

    2. anon-2

      Not unlike young hotshot baseball players — who were superstars in high school and / or college — they get drafted by a Major League organization.

      And they show up to camp , get assigned to A-ball or short-A – where the caliber of all players is on their level — and boy do they get shocked…yes, they struck out 20 in a game against Bozo High, but then he pitches his first pro game against the Batavia Muckdogs and gets shellacked…

  6. KTM

    This is a timely post for me to read… a higher up in the company and a kind of mentor for me has suggested I look into getting feedback from some of my coworkers regarding some of my strengths and weaknesses since I am looking to move up in the company in the near future. (No details as to whether this would be in person or anonymous). While in theory I’m very open to this, I am terrified that I will take the criticism too hard and be somewhat paranoid after the fact about the negatives I hear.

    I am also in my mid-20s and I think it is a difficult transition to make from being an over-achiever in school where you don’t receive much negative feedback to a professional working environment. It is something I am really hoping to work on!

    1. WorkingAsDesigned

      KTM, you have my sympathies. The first time I had to ask peers for feedback (I created a form email, with everyone bcc’d), it was nerve-wracking.

      Yes, I received some constructive feedback that was hard to read. Thankfully, people wrote it in a truly constructive way.

      The great thing was that they also sent specific, positive feedback, which was wonderful. It also helped me to become aware of some strengths I didn’t even know that I had!

      Best of luck – I’ll be cheering you on!

  7. Mena

    Shame on your boss – the annual performance review is no place to be dropping bombs. These concerns should have been raised earlier, like in a weekly one-on-one check-in. Oh, no weekly one-on-one check-ins? Shame on your boss again.

    It is your career and you need to manage it by seeking feedback, especially since this one doesn’t seem able to extend it on a regular basis. Please request a standing one-on-one meeting, every every other week to connect, review prioirities, seek feedback and gain focus on actions. This is something your manager should be scheduling but you now need to speak up and request.

  8. Joey

    Its a punch in the gut, yes. But I suggest focusing on the takeaway-you can’t count on your boss to proactively give you feedback. And who in the world should be held to unknown expectations. So here’s what Id do.

    1. Come back with a game plan to fix the issues now that you know the expectations.
    2. Follow through on the agreed upon game plan.
    3. Tell your boss you’d like regularly scheduled meetings to discuss what’s working and what needs improvement.
    4. Proactively schedule the meetings yourself.
    5. Ask for feedback on what you’ve done and what you’re doing and on your proposed ideas to improve.

    Is it fair? Definitely not, but you know have the power of knowing you can’t wait on your boss for this stuff. All you can do is concentrate on what to do going forward. That means proactively seeking the info you need to be able to do your job well.

  9. Stephanie

    Oh man, I remember I got raked over the coals during an intern performance review. I didn’t have a mid-summer review and got blindsided by the end-of-summer review. My manager said they were unhappy with my performance and expected more from me that summer. She also had some kind of personal comments in the review. The way things were phrased, it sounded like my project mentor basically forwarded all these criticisms to my manager and she copied and pasted. I held it together during the review, but then went out to my car and started bawling.

    I couldn’t even pinpoint why I was so upset. Thinking back, I guess it was just because I got completely blindsided and got berated for 30 minutes without an opportunity to say anything. I also hated that I never got a chance to improve or someone to tell me “Hey, you need to do xyz better.” I mentioned the review to my dad (who’s in HR) and he’s like “Wow…that is insanely harsh for an intern.”

    At that point, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. I was listed as “eligible for rehire”, but I couldn’t imagine trying to get a full-time role at the company with that review in my file.

    Later, I found out the company is a big proponent of “stack ranking”, even with the interns. They had to rank the performance of the interns, so one of us had to receive a better review than the other.* My friend who became a full-time hire confirmed this when she got a negative review unexpectedly. Her manager said someone on the team had to be bottom in the rankings, and that usually fell on the most junior employee.

    *That being said, I definitely took the less personal comments to heart and used it as a guide for things to work on.

    1. some1

      It’s especially harsh because it sounds like it was at the end of your internship so you had no chance to address any of it.

      1. Stephanie

        It was. It was literally a week before I was about to head back for the semester. I think that was what bugged me the most. At the point, there was nothing I could do about it. Didn’t help that my manager was like “Oh hey, I know this is your first corporate job…” followed by an hour of tearing me a new one.

        Only thing I could do to save face was do a really good job on my end-of-summer report. My manager and mentor were both really impressed by my report, but that didn’t change the review or my rehire status. The company had a system where interns were classified as something like “recommended for rehire”, “eligible for rehire” (which I got), and “not recommended for rehire.” So, technically, I could go for a full-time position, but it was definitely a case damning with faint praise.

        1. fractal

          I’m a little confused by their “stack ranking” system. Is there any particular reason why an employer would find this useful? Anybody?

          1. Stephanie

            Sorry if I wasn’t clear. You have to apply a distribution of ratings to your team–so you might only be able to award one “5” or “exceeds expectations”, despite how many employees might actually deserve it.

            I can’t think of any benefit to the employee. For the employer, it’s a clear way to get rid of low performers and promote high performers. It also helps cull the employee herd and restricts the number of promotions. You can point to the reviews like “Jane got all 1s on her last three reviews, so we should fire her. Wakeen got all 5s on his review, so we should promote him.”

            Of course, based on this system, you could have Steve Wozinak, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Alan Turing on one team, and one of them would have to get a poor review.

            1. fractal

              Oh, that makes sense now. Thanks for clarifying! I suspected it might have something to do with raises and promotions, but it still seems like a dysfunctional way to assess workers’ performances for the reasons you listed.

          2. Annie O

            My company just started doing stack rankings. It’s used to determine our annual raises and promotions.

            Each department has a number of rankings based on the number of employees. 5 employees = 5 possible rankings. If you get a 5, you get the biggest raise in that department. If you get a 1, no raise and a possibility of a PIP or termination. With this system, it’s entirely possible that an employee exceeds all their goals and still get a 1. I’m waiting to see how much the new system affects teamwork and collaboration.

            Also, our stacking is not cross-departmental. A good employee in an awesome department is going to get a lower raise than a mediocre employee in a bad department.

      2. Midge

        Getting feedback when it’s too late to implement it can be really frustrating. I took a technical drawing class in college where the professor didn’t give any grades until the end of the term. She would give minor corrections on your work as you went, but no real feedback. So I was pretty shocked when the semester ended to discover I got a C-. I think I cried at the time, but then I just felt angry at the professor. I had been excited to learn that skill, and she robbed me of the chance to learn it well by not telling me I sucked at it until it was too late.

  10. Chriama

    This is really timely for me. My supervisor at work just told me that I react not that well to bad feedback. It’s not that I get defensive, but I get sort of subdued (and I guess it makes her feel like she kicked a puppy or something). I knew I felt weird but I didn’t realize how much of it was visible. What’s a good way to respond to feedback? I don’t want to be flippant like “oh my bad”, but I don’t want to make the environment tense or seem like I’m taking it personally. What should I say or do to show that I acknowledge the feedback and will do better, without acting embarrassed?

    1. fractal

      You can always say something like, “I appreciate the feedback. What are some changes I can make to improve?” If their feedback is truly constructive, then they should be able to answer that question. Otherwise I’d be concerned that they’re trying to get personal with their criticism, in which case you have my approval to throw a cup of coffee in their face. But in all seriousness, nobody is perfect. Surely there’s something you wish your boss would change about his/her performance or behavior. You’re just not in the position to say as much – I assume.

      1. Chriama

        It’s usually not anything systematic, but a mistake I made in the moment. I tried to write an example but I can’t make the emotional overtone come through. Basically, it’s a small error that isn’t indicative of a larger pattern, and I just find it hard to show that I’m taking it seriously without making it look like I’m taking it personally. Is it enough to just say “ok, I won’t do that again” and leave it? Maybe I need to work on feeling less personally judged by feedback…

        1. fractal

          You mean like if someone pointed out a spelling or grammar error in a document you created, for example? Then I would just say, “Ok, got it.” Or even, “Ok, I’ll fix that immediately,” if it’s something that can be fixed. That way you come across as understanding the feedback without taking it personally. Of course, tone is everything. You want to sound upbeat, and not dismissive.

  11. Dennis

    This is poor management. An employee should never hear these criticisms for the first time at a performance review. Any employee would be upset, no matter what age they are or what stage of their career, if the get ambushed like this.

  12. MR

    Wow, was this a timely repost.

    I received my performance review this morning, and I was hearing things for the first time. All I could think about was ‘why is this the first time I am hearing about this?’

    Of course, I have a terrible boss, so it came as no surprise. My overall review was ‘exceeds expectations’ but the stuff that was said really grinded my gears.

    Fortunately, I report to a new manager beginning on Monday, and I’ll be sure to remind him to provide ongoing feedback, so stuff like this doesn’t happen again.

    1. MR

      By the way, I’m curious if the original OP has any kind of followup as to what happened going forward with this manager, and in the time since with any other managers/jobs.

  13. CTO

    I, too, am a hard worker and am used to usually being a high performer. Sometimes it means that I’m way too hard on myself and take critical feedback more harshly than I should (or even make up critical feedback for myself that isn’t really true!). Sometimes I need to remind myself that the sky isn’t falling. Did I drop the ball on that one aspect of that one project? Yes. Am I going to get fired? No. Am I going to die? No. Does anyone else care nearly as much as I do? No. Did people even notice? No.

    Then I take deep breath and remind myself it’s all going to be okay.

    I have gained a lot of coping skills in this area thanks to occasional therapy appointments. I have learned to relax and be so much easier on myself. It’s so liberating and I am so much happier and less stressed. If this seems to be a pattern in your life, perhaps it’s worth examining with the help of a compassionate professional. It’s not that there’s anything seriously wrong with you or that you have some kind of crippling diagnosis, but that you could just feel better about work and about life in general.

    If we had knee pain that kept nagging us for years, or a toothache that just keeps coming back, we wouldn’t think twice about seeing a doctor even if the pain is more an annoyance than an emergency. This is the same kind of thing.

    I do agree with the other commenters that your boss didn’t approach this in the best way. You didn’t really do anything seriously wrong here. You just made a very, very human mistake that you’re diligently addressing. It’s going to be okay!

  14. azvlr

    I agree that you should not have been blindsided by the negative review. I was in a similar situation once. I had HR’s list of the expectations to refer to so I thought I understood the expectations clearly. My biggest challenge was to learn the ropes of some new systems, a new culture and a new set of faces, so I proactively and repeatedly asked for help from the mentor assigned to me. Even with the challenges, I felt that my boss had faith in me because I was asked to shift gears a few times due to changing needs at the company. I did so graciously even though it meant a lot of extra work for me. The last such change would have been a promotion for me, but required significant disruption for them. So, at the last minute they found a candidate to step into the role. I was disappointed, but I understood the big picture and was still gracious about it.
    At my very next performance evaluation a few weeks later, I was rated “Needs Improvement” and put on an improvement plan. The main thing I was hit on was the thing I had been practically begging for help with. I had been at a loss on which information I needed to include in a report and did the best I could with the information I had. It turns out, the form I was using was the wrong one (I was using the one that my mentor sent to me!). I was now being observed regularly by the boss, my mentor and other managers. Each time, the feedback from my boss was at odds with the other observers, different from the detailed HR guidelines, and often conflicted directly with advice she had given me previously. I asked her during the improvement plan period whether I was now on track or if there was something more or different I should be doing. In the end, I jumped through her hoops and was still let go. To this day, I still don’t know what I should have done differently. I ultimately doesn’t matter because it was the push I needed to change fields and I’m now much happier. The bottom line for me is that the written expectations and my boss’s expectations were different. Be aware of the “hidden rules” that exist in any culture and seek to clarify them for yourself if not for others.

    1. Sharon

      That sounds to me like they deliberately set you up to fail. If it wasn’t deliberate, it was a breathtaking amount of management incompetence where you unfortunately paid the price.

      Glad you’re in a better place now, at least.

      1. azvlr

        I don’t hold it against them as a deliberate set-up. I really feel this person doesn’t have good people skills. On several occasions, I looked her straight in the eye and ask specific questions that I had even practiced so as not to sound too confrontational, but still be direct enough to get feedback. She eluded me every time.
        The culture in the job previous to that one was amazingly supportive, so I now have two extremes of what to look for in a working environment. So, I guess the experience was not altogether wasted.

  15. Not So NewReader

    I have worked several places where this type of behavior from a manager gets that manager labeled as untrustworthy. Some of my former coworkers have labeled such a manager a liar.

    Strong language.

    BUT. How do you learn to trust a manager like this?

    The only thing I have ever thought of to do beyond what is listed here, is to tell myself to look at the nature of the complaint. It is not possible for me to be a total dismal failure simply because I stapled the left corner rather than the right corner on that paperwork. [Or similar error.] If that is the heaviest thing a boss can come up with then I must be doing okay over all.

    I have to wonder if OPs real question is “how do I ever trust this person to mean what they say again?”

    I could go on about this angle of the question. But really, the bottom line is that OP might have to double check everything the boss says to find out what the boss really means. Yeah, I still be upset, too, OP. You’re going to be walking on eggshells until you better understand what the problems are here. It takes time to work through something like this.

    In general, I can’t see how a performance review that rattles a person that much is going to be of any help to that person. Just my opinion, though. For OP, I think you are doing everything you can to fix this. You are on the right track and looking at this well. And yeah, it’s tough.

  16. UrbanGardener

    I had a blindsiding happen to me at a mid-year review, the first one with my current boss. She told me I was too eager to do certain kinds of projects. However, my only role in these projects is to gather up the “just the facts, ma’am”, present them to my boss, and let her tell me if she wants to take them on or not. I have never once offered an opinion on any of these projects. That was a real head scratcher. She also blamed me for the damage on a piece of company property that was there before I started – but because I was the one who brought it to her attention, I get the blame. She demanded I find out who caused the damage years after the fact. Um , what? Like anyone will admit to it.

  17. I Love Books

    My first job out of grad school (my first MA degree) was at a govt contractor. I did my best and worked hard and they seemed happy with my work, then at my 6 month review, they completely blindsided me with all this criticism and I cried (I mean, REALLY CRIED). I had to leave to compose myself. It was terrible. I ended up quitting a few months after that because they wouldn’t stop criticizing me even after the interview was over and I knew they were looking for a reason to fire me. I went back for a second MA degree and am very happy in a different field (making less, but happier)

  18. Occasional Alaskan

    My first professional job was working for a year as an intern at a very dysfunctional arts organisation. One of the rules I came up for myself for how to survive that environment was ‘Always thank someone who criticizes your work.’ I did that the whole year – even if I had to thank them through clenched teeth. Even if I had to thank them and then run to the bathroom and cry a little right after. I did it. And I think it set up a good habit that I brought to less crazy work environments.

    (The other rules – ‘Always say a project is going to take twice as long as you think it actually will, so that if things go wrong, you’re still on time, and if things go well, you look amazing for finishing it more quickly than expected.’, and finally – “There is no such thing as too much apologizing’.)

    1. Bendey

      I act. I figure out what the boss wants and I give it to them. I don’t perform perfectly, but they can’t claim I acted against their wishes, commands or intent. I overcompensate, I ask for constant review-even emails- I cc everything. I defer to their greatness; I become their mat. This works for THIS BOSS – another boss did not want to hear for me, she didn’t. I need a job and do not need more stress- they won’t change, so I do. I have perfected a clueless look when I kow tow to them. I look like a trained poodle, because they want this. I pose ideas and needs as questions …. I recently shared with a millenial my practices and experiences, they were shocked, but beginning to awaken to the reality of work.

      1. Jean

        Sympathies! This sounds like a grim way to live in your workplace. I hope that a different job in a better environment is in your future. If you can’t start a job search right away (sounds to me as though you have other things going on in your life outside of work) you can still take tiny steps towards that activity by finding some kind of place where people appreciate you rather than wear you down. Enduring a less-than-ideal situation erodes the confidence and energy required to move on. Other commenters here have also observed that the experience being in a crummy work environment can cast a long shadow of gloom that endures even after you change jobs. It’s hard to create change but it’s also hard to adjust if somebody else creates the change for you. (Not trying to scare you! People can and do go along for years with an unhappy fit in the workplace…but in the long run it’s easier to live with less rather than more constant stress.)

        1. Bendey

          Everyone has stress, some acknowledge it others don’t. I have a realistic view of work….it’s work. I also find it depressing when politics override doing good work-it’s annoying, but getting a paycheck is number one. Unless, it’s illegal or immoral, I suck it up.
          It was harder when I thought work would be my life or salvation. For some work is, it defines them for many …we have families, faiths and fun that work is just the fuel for.
          Yes, a bad work situation sucks, but there’s no guarantee the next will be any better. Been there- living it.
          Actually, working on my own biz b/c I realized there’s only so far anyone can go in someone elses show.

  19. Tara

    I’m definitely one of those smart kids who almost never heard a negative word. I’m currently doing a paid internship, which is my first real work experience. I got my first performance review about a month ago and while it was almost all positive (and I “met expectations” on all categories), there were a few notes on things to improve on. No big deal, you would think, and logically I knew that… didn’t stop me from going home and crying about it, being unable to sleep for several days, and then obsessing about it for weeks before I realized that the goal of a review is to make me do my job better, not tell me how awesome I am! I feel a bit silly about it all now, especially since I’ve realized that the two things she mentioned are easy fixes.

  20. Orbiting Earth

    It’s been a couple of days and you’re still emotional? Don’t sweat it. It’s been almost a year and I’m still emotional about a poor performance review. Granted, it was performed by my former boss so I don’t have much to worry about in terms of losing my job (not that you do – your “problem” is easily fixable with a good boss)…but still. These things sting, man. Take it with a grain of salt, but don’t take it personally. Reviews should be about your performance, not you as a person, and performance is easily fixable.

    I’m one of those overachievers who sweats the small stuff. So when I heard from my boss that I “lacked focus” then was blindsided by a “meets some expectations” mid-year performance review (I had no idea they rated /re-rated employees during the 6-month review!), I asked for weekly 1:1 meetings to make sure I was on track. When pressed, he had no suggestions for my “lacking focus” issue. On the performance review, his problems with my performance involved a slip which a coworker had a huge hand in (I’ll take responsibility for that), and not regularly updating an internal document. Nothing about missing deadlines, nothing that affected the bottom line. Strangely enough (ha!) my great work turned to crap in his eyes as soon as I went back to school for my MBA. A degree which he didn’t have. He’d pull me into his office and tell me that my performance showed that I didn’t respect him as a person. Huh? He took everything personally, and got really angry with me on a 1:1, so bad that I told him 1) I didn’t know where the anger was coming from, but I didn’t appreciate it, because I come in every day looking to do a good job, and 2) I could no longer be alone in a room with him. He put on a great face for everyone else, but he was a whole different person with me. Ugh.

    After the performance review, I requested weekly 1:1 meetings which he regularly cancelled. Eventually, I called HR to get involved because I couldn’t deal with coming into work every day wondering what he’d find fault with next (and not telling me how to fix). This situation dragged out over the course of a year, and I met with him and his boss to discuss this. It was a string of slights, from not offering constructive feedback (good or bad) to scheduling department happy hours on days when he knew I was working from home, to blaming me for that slip which my coworker had a part in…but she was the golden girl and he never once said anything to her about her role in it (I asked her). At the meeting with his boss, I asked for a weekly 1:1 20 min meetings on Mondays to discuss my priorities, to make sure I was working on what he felt were priorities. (He never prioritized – everything was top priority) He shuffled the papers in front of him and said rudely that he’d “think about it.” In front of his boss. While the big boss ended up backing him up, he also told me that I wasn’t going to be let go. Regardless, I knew I had to leave if his bad behavior was being endorsed by the higher-ups. In fact, I said that in the meeting with his boss – that my only solution was to leave. The big boss wasn’t happy to hear that, but I’m sure my boss was elated.

    Fast forward to current day, where I’m at a better job with fantastic bosses (with MBAs). Huge difference. I’ve taken the criticism to heart, but with a grain of salt. Honestly, he was the worst boss I’d ever had, and that’s saying something. Didn’t even get out of his chair or extend a hand for a handshake as I walked out of the office on my last day. Was it because I was a woman? A woman working toward a degree he didn’t have? Who knows. Good riddance.

  21. KP

    Maybe your boss is a passive aggressive coward. She probably was too cowardly to call you out at the time things were happening and held it all in until she cowardly got behind a keyboard and laid it all out end of year. Corporate america is full of these types.

  22. Pomme de terre

    Chiming in super-late, but this was a good read for me today! Got a bad review from a manager who has since left the company, and found out in a weird way, to boot. (My bonus was less than expected, and that’s how I found out.) I didn’t think everything was going 100% well but it still sucked to hear, and it’s tough to figure out how to fix things when the old manager is gone and the new manager doesn’t necessarily know what the issues were. I definitely have stuff to work on, but it’s still crappy that a) the old manager didn’t tell me directly there were major problems and b) the new manager didn’t update me until the bonus issue forced her to do so.

  23. Better L8 Than Never

    I found this site while researching how to deal with a bad review. I, too, was blindsided during the evaluation interview. To make matters worse, the review came from a manager I thought was fair and unbiased. He was pretty informal with the four of us working on the project so I was lulled me into a false sense of security. My bad: I know better. The one feedback item he had for me was that he thought I needed additional training, yet when, on several occasions, I asked to attend that training he inevitably had some excuse why I couldn’t be spared at that particular time.
    Imagine my surprise, disappointment and anger to hear -during the review- that he dinged me in every category for not pursuing ‘learning opportunities’. I was furious! I was able to control my urge to scream and yell four-letter words during the review, but under the edge of the desk I kept pinching the palm of my hand in order to concentrate on the physical pain rather than the humiliation of the review. I was so distraught that I could barely speak for fear of losing control. [Later in the car on the way home: totally different story.]
    I’ll be the first to admit that the year in question was brutal me and for everyone involved in the project. But, I also know that of the four of us working on the project, two received promotions and the other moved on to a high profile project. I don’t know if it makes any difference, but I was the only female on the project, and the manager (male) was going through a divorce.
    I no longer report to that manager, and my new manager is fully aware of the challenges I faced with the previous manager and is working with me to help me ‘get back on track’. I will never be able to erase the bad review (although after speaking with HR I did write a rebuttal), so the only recourse I have is to be more diligent going forward. My take away is that everyone is in the game for themselves, and the only way to get ahead of the pack is to always, always CYA!

  24. JJ

    I like many others found this article while coping with feelings about my own performance review. Much like the others the blind-sided nature of my apparently poor performance is what got to me.

    I am usually great at taking criticism and have even ventured out to request recommendations in how to improve my performance . Add to that that i have skated by in the past and received positive reviews at the same company and to know that my latest attempts at applying myself were going unheeded was frustrating at best.

    One great point everyone is mentioning is that i am taking the time to evaluate myself as well. Leading up to this review i had felt that my position was unnecessary at times but during really busy moments i was absolutely needed . I even at one point asked my manager if my skills were necessary on the team and we had a frank conversation where he said on a less committed team maybe not so much but my team mates love me so ..they’d work with me.

    If i remove the warm fuzzies that tells me all i needed to know and really shows me i shouldn’t have been quite as blind sided by the news. If i felt like i contributed little how could they not feel the same if not more that way?

    There were also very valid recurring issues such as work speed and code quality that i have had to address as my career has improved and as i take more pride in my work. Those comments i am definitely working on because they make me. A better engineer.

    Unlike the others i believe this review has shown me that on my current team i am kind of pigeon-holed. I would like a raise, don’t have a desirable amount of responsibility, and am currently a floater of sorts. It may just be time for a change of scenery and time for me to accept a position that requires more of me.

  25. Ironglory

    The response by the “Ask A Manager” author is atrocious.

    This behaviour by the manager is normal, to be expected and nothing to get upset over? How wrong can you get? This behaviour by the manager is unacceptable. Why is a hardworking employee who works extended hours and skips their lunch break being forced to tears over by what their manager said? That’s absurd.

    The behaviour by the manager shows she is a poor manager and why performance reviews are often perverted from their intended purpose.

    The ‘performance review’ is made up of two words: performance and review. The purpose of the ‘performance review’ is to review an employee’s performance in terms of assessing what they did well and if there were areas for improvement. A performance review is an ego trip for the manager to instil fear and dread into their employees in the name of ‘accountability’. That’s not what performance reviews are for, even though lots of managers out there act like that’s exactly what it is: a punitive tool that is expects to raise performance by withholding information unfairly from the employee and instilling fear and dread.

    There should be no surprises at a performance review. This manager has made the classic cardinal sin of offering her employee no or limited feedback during the year. The employee continues doing what she is doing because no one tells her there is a problem. The manager then walks into the performance review and blasts the employee for her performance like it’s the fourth of july.

    A couple of questions for the manager in the story and the author from “Ask A Manager” who seems to think the manager’s conduct is “normal” and nothing to be fussed over:
    1) Why did the manager wait until the performance review to address (perceived) poor performance by the employee? There is no excuse for this. If you don’t have time to talk to your employees on an ongoing basis, here’s some insight: management is not for you. Please find a new vocation.
    2) How does it benefit the company if a manager wilfully turns a blind eye to poor performance except during annual performance reviews? Surely the company (and manager) would have benefitted if these problems were solved instead of left to fester before the performance review?
    3) How is an employee supposed to be engaged and motivated to perform at a higher level if the manager gives them no feedback or limited positive feedback (“you’re doing excellent work”) through out the year, only to be ripped to shreds in a performance review? Seriously this is like an episode of Game Of Thrones or The Sopranos: pretend there is no problem, lure your victim into a false sense of security and then when their guard is down rip their head off. It totally destroys trust. Destroying trust only creates fear, not superior performance.
    4) If a manager does not raise performance issues with the employee as those issues arise, how can the employee know there is a problem and fix it? The role of a manager is to set expectations. Failure to talk to employees about poor performance immediately is a failure to set expectations. Blasting an employee at a performance review about something the employee never knew was a problem before reveals two things about the manager: (1) they don’t know how to set and manage expectations with their employees, (2) they don’t believe in giving employees an opportunity to address poor performance prior to the performance review. They think the employee is telepathic and can read the manager’s mind, therefore the manager is 100% justified in blasting the employee about a behaviour issue that was never broached previously. That demonstrates a complete lack of integrity by the manager and a failure of process.

    Here’s what should have happened:
    STEP ONE: The manager has a performance issue with the employee and schedules a meeting with employee *immediately* or the next day at the latest.
    STEP TWO: The manager and employee discuss the issue. The focus is not on the employee, but on the output the employee is supposed to generate. e.g. getting a specific report out on time. The manager tries listening to the employee to understand if there is anything the company is doing that is stopping the employee for fulfilling their objectives. For example, this employee is working after hours with no lunch break. Is the manager putting too much work in a short space of time? Does the manager need to re-distribute the workload amongst her team? If reallocating the workload is not an option, does the manager want to reprioritise the completion dates for each tasks? A bad manager expects everything to be done tomorrow. A good manager knows how to prioritise and manage expectations of other stakeholders.
    STEP THREE: The manager and employee agree on actions to address the performance issue.
    STEP FOUR: There is a follow up meeting organised to assess how performance is now tracking and if the issue is resolved.

    If after all these steps, resolution is not achieved then it would warrant being a discussion point at a performance review.

    I feel sorry for the person who wrote this question. They’ve been abused by their manager and had that abuse reinforced as “normal” by the Ask A Manager author. Whether or not the employee’s performance was indeed poor, the performance management process was clearly not followed. If she indeed is working extended hours and skipping lunch breaks, I’d question if the manager simply doesn’t know how to manage the expectations of her stakeholders and too weak to push back on the workload hitting her team (asking your stakeholders to prioritise is a wonderful thing)…. so the manager is dumping unrealistic workloads onto her employees who work unpaid extended hours trying to cope, the manager says nothing about missed assignments and then unleashes a torrent of abuse during the performance review about missed work assignment.

    Honestly, I’d have expected better from Ask A Manager to whitewash the manager’s behaviour. Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment for any length of time understands how a performance review is supposed to work and has seen the scenario above played out before. It damages the employee, the manager and the company. It’s really sad.

  26. Julie

    Thank you for your wonderful comment. I agree totally on the unprofessional way performance reviews are done. It got me thinking of my bad review today. I just started a new job in November of last year and was told all the way up to January 1st that I was doing a great job. Then, a month and one week later, I had my three month review and was totally blindsided by a very bad review. In fact, I have another three months to improve and if I don’t, then I am gone. So, I am on eggshells until then. I had NO IDEA and thought that the firm was happy with me. Come to find that I was told that I am loud, even though I think I am not, I am on the internet all the time (no I am not), and a bunch of examples were brought up about me being frustrated when asked to do a rush job. I have only been nice, a huge team player and a hard worker. So, you are telling me in one month all this stuff has been happening???? Not a one positive example came out of the performance. I actually had to leave for the day, I was so upset. I had such high hopes for this firm and now, I just do not know. I can see if I knew I was doing something wrong but I was never told up until the review. I also do believe it is wrong to throw a bomb and not inform me when it happens. Some of the stuff that was said were lies about me but I am not the one they believe, its the ones that tell them that they believe in. I just do not get it and I believe I am taking it personally. I know there is one person in the office that does not like me and because she is ranked high, they believe her. It is such a cruel world out there and I really need the job so I will stay and make things work and have also decided that weekly meetings need to be held so as to not hear the same thing three months from now.

  27. pigbitinmad

    It wasn’t always this way, but the prevailing sentiment among Millennial managers is that once you screw up you are damaged goods forever. The minute you are hovered over and forced to improve, you are gone. In my case, when I first started, I was told I was the best person they ever had in that position. Later, they forgot this and hounded me out of the job by using a minor little mistake to berate me with. 7 months later, they were discussing this inconsequential thing at meetings in front of my coworkers and asking (pleading) with everyone to find a way to ensure that this never happens again. I mean, I wasn’t going to just leave. They made my life totally miserable but I didn’t care if I died of an aneurysm (which is how I felt), I was not going to just get up and leave. I would rather die than let those people win. It was war and I was fired, but at least I can say they didn’t force me to quit and forfeit unemployment benefits.

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