How to Deal with a Bad Performance Review at Work

Did your boss give you an unfair performance evaluation? Here’s how you can handle a bad review at work.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Meeting of a bad performance review at work

So, you just had your performance review, and it went much, much worse than expected.

Unfair appraisals and criticism can sting and leave you feeling shocked, disappointed and defensive. You might even go into survival mode if you feel like you’re being personally attacked, blaming your mistakes on anyone but yourself in the hopes that you’ll get off with a clean slate.

But such an emotional response won’t get you far, and it’s important to know that the feedback isn’t (usually) a personal attack but, rather, constructive criticism meant to improve your work ethic and skills.

So, to avoid any awkward and weepy lash-outs in the aftermath of your performance review, let’s take a closer look at how you can better handle the situation.

1. Take a breather

When you receive negative feedback, your instinct may be to give your critic a piece of your mind. However, in a professional environment, it’s best to sit back, take a few deep breaths and avoid saying anything you will later regret when you’re feeling less emotional.

2. Stay calm

If you’ve just been told something you don’t necessarily agree with, take notes and let your manager explain their reasoning. If, on the other hand, you can see your boss is getting heated up, you should steer the conversation back to facts and practical information.

3. Don’t lash out

In the past, I’ve witnessed colleagues react badly to a poor review by shouting abuse and causing a scene in front of the whole office. Obviously, this didn’t end very well for my former coworker, who received a warning and a week’s suspension from work. From witnessing this slightly entertaining but dramatic outburst, I learnt that you should maintain a dignified stance and address any issues in a calm and professional manner — and behind closed doors!

4. Learn from your mistakes

Maybe your boss has pulled you aside a few times on account of your tardiness but you chose to ignore them and are actually surprised to find it noted in big, bold letters on your annual appraisal. It’s probably time to learn from the mistake and make a conscious effort to listen to feedback and make the changes that are requested of you.

5. If you disagree, say so

If you strongly disagree with a few points, you’re entitled to dispute them in a polite way. You should first acknowledge any valid points that were made, but then present your own argument and perspective on the matter at hand. This will help you direct the conversation to your point, rather than offending the quality of your evaluation.

6. Come up with an improvement plan

How do you respond to fair but unpleasant comments? You devise an improvement plan that will help you get back on track and become a stellar employee. It’s best to come up with your own ideas at first and consult your boss for their input — this shows that you’ve used the initiative to analyse areas where you’re lacking the skills and ways that you can improve.

7. Consider talking to HR

If you feel that your manager’s comments, and their reasoning, are unfair, you might want to consider speaking to your HR department. If you feel like your boss is personally attacking you, take proof of other instances where they have been unjust to back up your argument.

8. Form a counter case

If you can prove that your boss’s feedback is unfair, it’s time to gather all the evidence and form a counter case. For example, if your boss says that you lack time management skills, you can show that you do actually meet the deadlines you’re given by providing email examples and other concrete evidence. If you use a team-sharing board, meanwhile, this should show when you completed your tasks, which will be more than enough proof.

9. Analyse your review

After your performance review, you’ll be given the original copy of the appraisal form, along with your manager’s comments, and be asked to sign and return it to the HR department. It’s important to take at least a day to read your boss’s comments to see if the criticisms are in fact justified and you were simply offended by the feedback.

10. Consider other possible factors

Perhaps you feel that you’re doing your best and working as effectively as possible within your role. Somehow, your efforts still translate as not enough for your boss. It might be important to consider the possibility that, while you have an excellent work ethic and are loyal to your company, the issue here is, in fact, that you’re in the wrong line of work. Alternatively, it might be that you work better in an office setting, rather than a remote workstation, or that you’re slowly becoming burnt out by an overload of responsibilities.

So, if you feel that your performance review does not truly represent your values and efforts, give yourself time to consider what other factors might have contributed to a negative evaluation and act accordingly.

11. Ask for help

If you’ve come to the conclusion that your bad performance review is in fact valid, don’t be shy to ask for help. You might be lacking in an area that your boss excels in, like prioritising, for example. They can sit down with you and show you how to organise your work so you’re efficient throughout your working day.

12. Show your commitment

After receiving bad feedback, you’ll most likely have your back up and will probably want to quit. However, it’s probably best to show your commitment to improving yourself. You can even check in with your supervisor on a weekly basis to ensure you’re meeting the right requirements.

13. Set new goals

After your appraisal, consider if there’s something you want to accomplish by the end of the month. For example, if you work in sales, you might want to increase your target. Or perhaps you have your eye on a supervisor role that opened up. By setting and achieving new goals, you’ll show your manager that you’re serious about your job and making a change to move up the career ladder.

14. Get out the office

Once you’ve received bad news, you’re not going to be productive in any shape or form. In order to try and shake off the bad vibes, get out of the office and get some fresh air. This will help you return with a new attitude and a different perspective.

15. Ask for ongoing feedback

If you’re serious about never receiving a bad appraisal again, make sure you have an open line of communication with your manager, and ask for ongoing feedback. This way you’ll be able to show a real interest in progressing, and your manager can’t save any nasty surprises for your annual get-together!

16. Be consistent

When you’re trying to change your behaviour, it’s easy to slip back into your old ways — after all, old habits die hard. It’s vital to stay consistent and not give your boss the excuse to slate you. For example, you could be known as the office hothead, so be sure to always keep your cool and express your opinions calmly, even if you really don’t agree with the latest policy mentioned in the team meeting.

17. Plan for your next review

Start planning for your next review by saving all email correspondence and evidence of your good work. For example, if you achieved the highest number of sales in that week, make a note of it. Or if you received good feedback from a client or supervisor, keep a printed record. By going into your review prepared, you’ll show that you mean business.

18. Speak to your colleagues

Most of the time, having the opinion of unbiased third parties can help you put things into perspective.

In your mind, you might be an excellent communicator and a great teammate, but others who work with you might not share the same opinion. So, if you believe that your manager’s performance evaluation is unfair, then get a second opinion from the people who you work closely with.

Just make sure not to react negatively at what they say, and to open yourself up to constructive criticism. On the other hand, if your colleagues’ feedback contradicts what your supervisor said, it’s important to mention this to them and use the positive consensus in your favour. (That said, keep your colleagues’ names anonymous and try not to drag them in the middle of the dispute.)

19. Ask for a follow-up meeting

After careful analysis, if you feel like you need a face-to-face discussion with your boss, don’t hesitate to ask for a follow-up. This could be because you feel the criticism isn’t fair and you would like to discuss your concerns with them before taking it further, or because you want to create a plan of action so you can improve.

20. Explore your options

If you really can’t repair your reputation after a truly terrible performance review, it might be time to start looking for work elsewhere. Remember to take the time to perfect your  résumé and cover letter, and find a job that you know you will excel at.

Final thoughts

A bad review is hard to swallow, but you need to remember that the whole point of it is to help you become better at your job. By following the correct steps, you can ensure that both you and your boss are happy by the time your next evaluation comes around.

Have you had a bad review before? Let us know how you handled it in the comments section below.

This article is an update of an earlier version published on 3 May 2018 and contains contributions by staff writer Melina Theodorou.