how to deal with a bad performance review

Receiving a negative performance evaluation is one of the most rattling and anxiety-producing experiences you can have at work – and that’s especially true if you’re blindsided by the criticism. You might even wonder if you’re in danger of losing your job. But the worst thing that you can do in response to a bad review is to panic, because that can keep you from taking steps to improve the situation.

If you’re faced with a bad review, here are five steps that will help you regain your manager’s trust and rebuild your standing.

1. Make sure that you fully understand your manager’s concerns. You can’t fix problems that you don’t entirely comprehend, so make sure that you really get where your manager is coming from. If you’re not quite understanding the feedback, say so and ask for clarification and some specific examples. It’s fine to say something like, “I really want to understand your concerns, but I’m not sure I have my head around it yet – can you give me an example or two of how this plays out and what you’d like me to be doing differently?”

2. Stay calm. It might be hard not to react emotionally in the moment, particularly if you didn’t see this coming. But it’s crucial to stay calm so that you can focus on what you’re hearing. Plus, if you seem angry or defensive, your manager will worry that you’re not open to the feedback and won’t be able to incorporate it into your performance going forward. Staying calm and reasonable is the professional way to handle difficult feedback, and it’s going to help the situation go more smoothly.

Realize, too, that you don’t need to react on the spot. It’s okay to ask for some time to think over the feedback and process it. If you want to request that, say something like, “I’d like to take a day or two to contemplate this and then come back to you with a plan for addressing it.”

3. If anything in the evaluation was a surprise, ask to get feedback more regularly. A good manager will give you feedback on a regular basis and won’t let anything in a formal review come as a surprise. But plenty of managers fall down on this front, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself hearing about an issue for the first time in a review. If that happens, it’s reasonable to something like, “I take concerns like these very seriously. I’d like to ask for your help in ensuring that we’re on the same page about any concerns going forward. Could you let me know right away if you have concerns about my performance in the future, so that I’m able to address them quickly?” You could even add, “I promise to be receptive to hearing them – I just want to be sure we’re on the same page.”

4. Don’t refuse to sign the evaluation. Sometimes people think that refusing to sign a bad performance evaluation will indicate formal disagreement with the evaluation’s contents or even stop the evaluation rom being finalized. But that’s not the case – and refusing to sign is generally seen as such a hostile and adversarial move that it will do permanent harm to your standing at work. Plus, the signature requirement itself is a bureaucratic detail; it’s not something that will prevent your employer from proceeding with the evaluation. However, if you want to indicate that you don’t agree with the contents when signing an evaluation, you can add a note that says “signing to indicate receipt only.”

5. Develop a plan for your next steps. In some cases, your boss might put you on a formal performance improvement plan. But if she doesn’t, it’s worth creating an informal one for yourself. For instance, you might decide that you’re going to work to develop a particular skill, seek mentoring from a senior colleague, sign up for a training class, or proofread all your work twice before turning it in.

You might also consider asking to meet with your manager in about a month to discuss what progress you’ve made. Doing that will show that you’re taking the feedback seriously, want to improve, and aren’t going to avoid confronting the problems directly. In fact, it’s so rare to have someone do this in response to a bad evaluation that it’s likely to make your manager want to invest in you – or at least to make her respect you in a way that can only help you, no matter how this plays out.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. HarryV*

    I have a confession. I am on the giving bad performance side and oftentimes, the bad reviews are forced upon through leveling. I hate it, everyone admits it but it must be done.

    1. A Teacher*

      I watched this happen when I worked for a physical therapy company–even top performers that earned in the 90s on a 100 point scale were brought down to the high 80s so the company could give out less of a bonus. When people asked how to fix their mistakes or what they needed to do different, they were told “oh nothing, we just made the scale harder.” They literally could not tell people what they could do to get better scores. Scary.

      1. AFT*

        Yes, this is what my company is doing. It’s similar to stacked ranking, but it’s also about reverse-engineering performance scores to lower raises/bonus payouts. If you’re a high performer, your manager may not be able to explain your score at all or they’ll justify it by minimizing successes and maximizing mistakes. With the general lack of transparency and fairness, there’s been a lot of grumbling about perceived favoritism.

    2. Clever Name*

      If you have to do something like this, please make sure you are telling your direct reports. You might even want to give them a verbal, informal but “real” review and then say that due to requirements from above you are only allowed to rate them at X. The situation still sucks, but at least you aren’t demoralizing your staff.

      I tend to take stuff like this very personally (even if I don’t show it on my “work face”), and I would be devastated if I had always gotten positive feedback from higher-ups all year long only to get reamed in my annual review. I would spend sleepless nights wondering how I’d screwed up and worrying whether or not I’d be fired. :/

      1. Clever Name*

        I should have added that the situation you describe is still demoralizing, but it would be less demoralizing to know the politics behind the bad review.

      2. Us, Too*

        I’m not sure how good idea it is to tell someone “hey, you’re actually a good performer, but 10% of my team has to get an “F” and that’s you this time.”

        I mean, on the one hand, they’re a good performer. On the other hand, I just told them they’re in the bottom 10% of the team. I might as well tell them to start looking for a new job.

        This kind of forced stack rank/bell curve is rarely effective. It’s a lazy way to force crappy managers to manage out lousy staff members, but it also results in losing good people.

        1. Clever Name*

          I suppose you could say that, but surely there must be other ways of telling a good performer that they actually don’t suck, even thought a literal reading of their review would seem to indicate that.

          1. Us, Too*

            I’m not sure that there is any ethical and productive way to tell someone that you’re giving them a crappy review even when they aren’t crappy. No matter how you do it, it’s going to be a morale killer. I’m open to hearing suggestions on wording, but almost every way I can think of looks and sounds pretty terrible.

            1. KellyK*

              I think you’re right—there is no ethical way to do that. The problem is that you (hypothetical you) already moved out of the realm of “ethical” when you lied about their performance on their review. If you give someone a “needs improvement” when you don’t think they actually need improvement, that’s dishonest. It might be dishonesty that’s required by upper management, but it’s still dishonest.

              Also, if there’s no budget for raises, there’s no budget for raises. Why do you have to demoralize people to not give them a raise? I’ve certainly gotten “exceeds expectations” performance reviews and no raise.

              1. HarryV*

                Exactly. Most of my employees have already figured out that putting in that extra effort to gain that $2000/year raise simply isn’t worth it. They can get that amount by working one weekend in a month if they choose to!

            2. Nichole*

              This happened to me in a past job, it slammed my morale and made me respect my manager less (and she was otherwise wonderful to work for and someone I still admire greatly). It was hard to sympathize with “I’m not allowed to give you the rating I think you deserve because policy says we’d have to give you a raise, and they don’t do that in the first year.” I hated that the content of the review was useless in describing my strengths and achievements because it was watered down to average.

              1. HarryV*

                Sorry you went through that but it is really out of your manager’s control. Best thing to do is to find a way to leave.

          2. Us, Too*

            Also – if someone is in the bottom 10% and we are in an environment that does this kind of stack ranking, that person needs to up their game or they’ll potentially be next on the chopping block. So you’re doing them no favors in sugar-coating the fact that they’re at the bottom of the stack.

            1. LQ*

              But there’s a big difference between being on the bottom of the stack when you are exceeding all required work and being on the bottom because you’re crummy and a slacker and barely show up.

              (Also if your company has so many amazingly incredible top performers and you’re still laying people off then clearly management is the problem here.)

              1. Us, Too*

                Personally, I think any organization that forces a bell curve distribution for reviews/raises is likely a “clearly management is the problem here” type of organization. Sadly, it is more common than you’d think, though.

                The orgs that I’m aware of who do this sort of thing are also the kind that force you to “manage out” (or layoff or fire) the bottom x% of your staff every year or two. (hence my comment)

  2. Anonymous*

    Hello HarryV — am I reading you correctly that the bad reviews you are giving are undeserved? That the employees actually deserve a better review but the procedure of “leveling” forces you to downgrade the review? What is leveling — how do you define it?

    Alison, does this sound kosher to you? If you are an employee on the receiving end of leveling what recourse do you have?

    1. AB*

      My company does this. In our company, even the managers have no insight into who gets “downgraded”. To explain how it works, it would be like saying a teacher gives a test, but the school board says each test can only have so many A’s, so many B’s and so many C’s because they can only have so many people move up to the next level (get bonus’ and/or raises). So the teacher gives the test, and most of the students get A’s. So that teacher will be in line with the school board’s mandate, the principal then goes in and changes the grades to match the required amount. So, even if the student actually EARNED an A, the school board only allows so many people to advance. Neither the teacher nor the students have any say or recourse on who gets the lower score.

      1. AB*

        I think managers can argue if they feel an employee really shouldn’t be downgraded, but that only means someone else will have to take the fall. Also, I feel that this is a rare occurrence, and even rarer that they would accept the change.

        I get the feeling that this is pretty common practice, esp in large companies.

      2. Laura*

        I think I love my company to pieces, now. Annual review and salary/merit raises are considered separately. Obviously the former probably affects the latter, but it’s understood that a glowing review doesn’t guarantee a raise.

        I’m fine with that, I wouldn’t be fine with artificially worse (or better!) reviews. I want to know where I stand and what I need to work on, if anything.

        1. AB*

          In our company, you still know where you stand. You manager gives the review just as he normally would. When you have your annual performance review, your manager gives you your real performance rating. Then, once the performance review period has ended, each department is evaluated and those performance scores are leveled to match the ratings averages the company requires. After that, your manager has another meeting with you to discuss whether or not you get a bonus and/ or a merit raise. If your score was “adjusted”, your manager would tell you at that point.

    2. annie*

      A family member just had this system implemented at his workplace, after working there for over ten years and always being one of the top, if not the #1, performer almost every year. He had to be downgraded because “no one could get that high a rating” under the new system. As a result, he is now looking for other jobs, and taking his institutional knowledge and high performing self to, it’s looking like, the company’s biggest competitor. The competitor has often attempted to recruit him, but this is the first time he’s entertaining their interest, because he no longer feels the loyalty he once did. It will be a huge loss for his current company and they will panic when he gives notice and freak out when they realize where he is going. He feels a little bad about it because he knows how big a loss it will be, but I think its just deserts! My point is, push back against this – you’re going to loose the best people with the most options available to them.

    3. HarryV*

      Yes. Happens both ends of the spectrum. People who should have a top rating are forced down and people who should be average are being put into below avg.

  3. JM*

    I agree with A Teacher. It is an effort to reduce the number of promotions or raises so that people would either leave or stay (if they don’t have a choice).

    1. A Teacher*

      I do think that sometimes negative reviews are necessary, don’t get me wrong, I just think they should be used the right way. As Alison says, good managers should be giving constructive feedback all along. A negative review shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone and if it does, the employee should be allowed to have time to compose themselves and address it as necessary. I’ve been fortunate that in the school I teach for, you can pretty much anticipate what your review will be with my assistant principal because he gives decent feedback throughout the process. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says but at least I know what changes to make. The PT company I worked for liked to throw in surprises for no reason and then would be upset when turnover was about 60-65% a year.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree – and I’d add that if someone were truly blindsided by a negative review (as opposed to being in denial about things you were getting regular feedback about) then that’s a real problem with management.

        You should never hear about serious work concerns for the first time during a review, unless the concerns started 15 minutes before the review meeting. A manager who didn’t give feedback but blindsided me in a review would leave me paranoid all year long, because I’d constantly be wondering what I don’t know about.

        1. Vicki*

          I’ve had those managers. And they did leave me paranoid. Which means, in my case, I stop talking to them any more than I have to.

          Problems? None. Questions? None. What’s up? Nothing. You get my status report while I look for another department or job.

        2. Manager*

          This happened to me a month ago. Praised all year, mentioned in conference calls etc…Good job on this, good job on that. Meets or exceeds expectations in nearly every controllable category. Downgraded to an NI in a subjective category and put me at the threshold for no merit increase. Blindsided and demoralized and now I will be paranoid all year.

          1. Some developer*

            Yep – paranoid is right. I used describe my office as a real life Watership Down; some morning’s you’d come in and you’d see an ex-co-worker’s desk being packed up into boxes. Sometimes they’d just disappear completely. Then I’d feel a little stupid for asking, “Hey. where Joe?” and hear “Yeah, he was let go two weeks ago.”

            Fellow employees usually have a pretty good handle on whether someone’s great, OK or a dud. There were very few duds at this company, yet people were ‘disappeared’ regularly. I was trying to re-finance my mortgage after getting separated, and my first post-termination comment was “Oh, that’s inconvenient.”

            It’s OK, though — this company has some pretty honest feedback on glassdoor.com. :)

          2. Rob Schmidt*

            Much of Silicon Valley “loser” firms (those not in the headlines or are just slightly profitable) use these political tactics. Morale plummets. Workers are discouraged even though they may continue to put out excellent work quality. I managed a high volume Accounts Payable department for one of those high tech firms and our error rates were virtually non-existent. High praise all year long. Because other functions of the business were deemed “more important” than us office workers, our performance rating were put at “average”. People then started leaving. The place is not mediocre at best with mediocre employees which could be exactly what top management really wants….mediocre employees bewcause who cares if errors happen when we at the top rape and pillage a business at shareholder’s and non critical employee’s expense. HR departments also run “on orders” from above and in such a company are essentially useless.

  4. Cautionary tail*

    We’ve had normal annual reviews with expected normal annual increases, but had the review rating and related increase reduced for last-minute budget purposes. So after working my behind off for a year and meeting set written targets, I and the others on my team got “needs improvement” just so our manager would not exceed the lowered budget targets from above.

    I suppose that falls into the category of “understand your manager’s concerns.”

  5. PEBCAK*

    I’d add: try to read between the lines. If they are suddenly trying to get rid of you, start looking for a new gig. How do you know this is the case? Well, in one company I worked for, if you got written up for internet usage, you were definitely screwed.

  6. anon-2*

    More “balance”. Let’s say your rating scale is 1-5, 5 being the top of the scale. The big shots come out and tell a manager – “we want your average grade to be 3, or 2.8″…. if you give someone a 5, you have to give someone a 1.

    If you’re the employee on the receiving end of an unfair appraisal – you have several options —

    1) you might refuse to sign it. This gives management a chance to back away from it.

    2) you might reply to it and refute what was said in it.

    But before you decide what to do – step back and take a deep breath. It’s sometimes better to just walk away for the present and say “I can’t handle this, I have to think about all this.”

    If you’ve had ten years of good reviews and then get a “surprise” or “purpose pitch” — your boss’ boss knows that, and it’s on your boss.

    In this day and age, it may be difficult to take action. Back in the 90s – the common approach was to find another job. The tone of your resignation would be “Hey, I can’t keep you happy. Maybe it’s best I just go down the road…” — if you are a valuable asset, you might

    a) end up getting a new review on the spot
    b) a counter offer

    When upper managements pass down an order to suppress raises and bonuses – if they REALLY want to preserve order, they usually set up an off-budget slush fund to handle these situations. They can’t afford to lose a key person….

    1. The IT Manager*

      But really, if 5 signifies “exceptional” then everyone probably isn’t a 5.

      Certain scales set someone as doing their job as well as expected i.e. “satisfactory” as a 3 out of 5.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        No, but a 5 will mess up the scale unless you find someone to give a 1 to. So if you do have someone exceptional, then you’d better hope you have a lousy performer to make the balance still work. Either that, or give a 1 to one of your 2.8 or 3 people.

      2. Vicki*

        I’ve always loathed “as expected” or “exceeds expectations”.

        If I’m doing a good job I should be meeting expectations because I am doing what’s expected of me. It has always seemed to me that people who exceed expectations had managers with low expectations.

        1. Laura*

          In our team, you can get below expectations (which I promise you won’t be a surprise, you’ll have been hearing about it before that). Meets expectations. Or exceeds. You do have to earn exceeds, but the top performers do get it. But “meets expectations” is a good employee we’d like to keep.

          I don’t think that people who exceed expectations always have managers with low expectations. That may be one way to get it, but not the only.

  7. anon for this*

    Any tips for how to approach it with your manager if you’re not sure you can complete the requirements of a PIP? My husband had a job where he got a PIP for repeatedly working overtime, which would be understandable except that his coworkers were all addressing the same issue by clocking out but continuing to work unpaid as much as 2 hours after their shifts were over. He ended up doing the same but felt terrible about it. Probably in that situation it was just bad management/poor fit all around, but is there any way he could have started a conversation along the lines of “I don’t know how to do what you’re asking me to do in the amount of time you’re asking me to do it”?

    1. fposte*

      A company that’s okay with workers illegally working off the clock probably isn’t going to be all that finicky about the achievability of a PIP.

    2. James M*

      Document everything. Get other employees to do the same. In a month or so, take all of documentation and talk to a lawyer.

      I bet these kinds of shenanigans are so common because management believes they will get away with it.

    3. HarryV*

      Please tell your husband not to do this. My friend who manages a large team in a very large and well known insurance company had to fire someone for being dishonest with their timecard. Clockout and leave the work undone. Sometimes, management needs work to be left undone so they can justify headcount increases.

  8. Erik*

    I’ve had a lot of “surprises” in my performance reviews at my last company. They always had to find something to ding you on, even you were a stellar performer all year.

    I had a performance review with one manager who would later resign that day, who decided to go out with a bang and give everyone a bad review. I brought a red marker and started crossing out false statements, and asked for a new version and only then would I even acknowledge it. It ended up being a sea of red from all of the marks I made. Only then I would sign it, but added the statement “only acknowledging receipt, will provide rebuttal to items marked above”.

    This is why I don’t take performance reviews seriously anymore. Most companies just “go through the motions” and find ways to ding you for no reason.

    1. Esra*

      What ended up happening after he resigned? If I were going to go out with a bang, I think I’d lean more toward giving people amazing reviews.

      1. Erik*

        Thanks to his scathing reviews, he burned a ton of bridges with everyone in engineering and throughout the company, and I personally haven’t heard from him since. Given we’re in Silicon Valley which is a very small piece of real estate, word gets out quickly.

        He did a lot of consulting in addition to his regular FT job (how he juggled all of this I’ll never know), so I know that he’ s still around somewhere.

        I agree that he would’ve given good reviews to at least leave on a good note – there was no need to give bad reviews to everyone. Sure, we all have areas of improvement but you need to keep it professional.

        In any case, I would never work for him or any company that has him on the payroll.

    2. Vicki*

      I had a manager who was told, on a Friday, that a) I was going to be laid off the following week and b) therefore he needed to finish my review (why????). He had planned to go skiing that weekend.

      So he spent part of his ski weekend writing a review for someone who was being laid off. He put all of his frustration, annoyance, stress, and anger into that review.

      I didn’t even bother to sign in receipt. Seriously? What could anyone do to punish me?

  9. ThursdaysGeek*

    This is implying that there is some truth in the evaluation. What if there isn’t? Sure, you still need to acknowledge it, be calm, and take it seriously, but isn’t there more, if you know the review is invalid?

    For instance, after years of good reviews, my spouse got a bad review. The main reason was there needed to be a scapegoat for a project with serious issues, and the option was between my spouse, who was raising concerns, and the manager’s husband, who was the project manager.

  10. Scott M*

    Allison has really good points. I agree with them all. I’ve had one bad review in my career, and it was all very weird. The bad review didn’t come from my manager at the time, it came from the project management of the project I was assigned to. It was all very out-of-the-blue. In fact, the first draft of my review was the same good review I had for years. It was only months later, during the ‘compensation’ part of the review process that I learned my review had been changed to ‘not-satisfactory’ due to ‘additional feedback’.

    I swallowed my pride. I signed the review with comments. I mentioned that had I known about the concerns about my work I could have addressed them. Vowed to ask for feedback more often. I accepted the lack of a merit raise that year.

    I left the project and was no longer under the project managers who contributed to my review. My department was reorganized and my team was moved under a new manager. I’ve asked for feedback more often but am assured I’m doing well. I’ve written it off as a fluke.

    But still it hurts and I’ll never take the review process for granted again.

  11. anon in tejas*

    I had a review on Friday, and it went okay. I am normally used to being one of the top at my office, and my review was good. But I was not exceptional on any of the qualifiers. I am surprised with how much I am struggling with that (as a Type A, overachiever).

  12. Newbie*

    At a previous job, I had a lackluster performance evaluation that I didn’t agree with. When my accuracy is 100%, how can I improve from ‘meeting expectations’ to ‘above average’ or ‘distinguished’ ? I thought the whole thing was rigged to prevent salary increases and/or bonuses.

    The initial meeting was in late January. I was asked to give feedback within a specific time frame – 3 days as I recall. I met that deadline. My response was 1 page, typed, where I specifically asked for additional feedback and examples of how I could improve. Boss promised a meeting after he got back from vacation.

    After waiting 10 months for that meeting, where I gave my boss several reminders and was promised that it would happen – I resigned in December. Best thing I could’ve ever done for myself.

    1. Us, Too*

      Clearly you need to predict errors and correct them in others’ work before they even happen. ;)

    2. James M*

      Demonstrating impeccable clairvoyance is the minimum required to receive “exceeds expectations”. I wish I were joking… maybe some bosses believe the Harry Potter series is a documentary?

      1. Newbie*

        Part of me wasn’t all that surprised. After all, this is the same boss who cut the department numbers in half (with the same workload) and advised that demotions were necessary since the level of attrition was lower than expected. Yeah. We weren’t quitting fast enough. Oy.

  13. RT*

    Alison, I want to ask about the “stay calm” point. I am a crier — I’m working on it, but for the time being, it is something that happens. So not showing an emotional reaction to upsetting feedback might not be a realistic plan for me right now. As an alternative / a compromise, could you suggest ways to professionally comment on one’s own (highly visible, impossible to miss) emotional reaction, and/or to excuse oneself professionally in order to take needed time to deal with the initial impact of feedback (or another type of intensely emotional work conversation)?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      How about simply: “I’m so sorry, could you give me a few minutes to collect myself?” … and then when you return, “My eyes sometimes tear up easily, please don’t let that put you off giving me feedback!”

      1. Julie*

        I especially like the last part because I wouldn’t want my manager to be reluctant to give feedback just because i might have an emotional response to it. And I completely understand how that could happen, so I agree that you have to address it.

      2. RT*

        Thanks! It’s good to remember that sometimes all it takes is something simple and clear.

    2. Scott M*

      I’m a guy, and even *I* find myself choking up at upsetting news (especially when I’m extremely frustrated).

      While it doesn’t help with tears, I’ve found I can disguise a cracking voice by lowering my voice in pitch. This helps forestall any embarrassment from my voice breaking, and helps stall the onset of tears.

  14. Some developer*

    A past employer used stacked ranking, and I still don’t know that it did anyone any good. The team leads would get together with the Engineering manager and read out the scores of their team members, and he would then arbitrarily downgrade some of the scores.

    We all knew that it was a scam, but when my performance review was cooked up to agree with this phony rating, I knew that my days were numbered. A PIP followed, which I completed to the letter, but then received no feedback from my manager. As I was going through a messy separation, I kept my head down and worked even harder.

    A month after I was terminated, my former team lead left on his own volition. I see him occasionally at user groups meetings. He always appears sheepish to me.

    Stacked ranking is worthless. Let me repeat that in case some shiny new manager is considering using it: it’s worthless. Worthless. Junk.

    1. Cautionary tail*

      I absolutely agree. Over a decade ago I worked with, not in, a certain failed megacompany in an oval shaped building at 1400 Smith in Houston that had a forced ranking system where the bottom 25% of the company was let go each year. The backstabbing that went on was unbelievable and contributed to the CFO & president being jailed. The CEO would have gone to jail if he hadn’t died before getting sentenced. The stories I know about this company are at the same time legendary and true. I’d share some but it might give me away.

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