Performance Reviews: When Bad Job Evaluations Happen to Good People

So you’ve been at the job for a while and it’s finally time to find out what your boss really thinks of you. The door closes behind you as the air gets sucked out of the room. It’s just the two of you now.

And then it happens. Your boss says you aren’t pulling your weight. Or you didn’t take enough initiative on that last project. Or you’ve taken too many sick days. Or been late too often. Or the quality of your work is below par. Or simply you’re good…but not as good as you could be.

So how do you handle a bad review?

The most important thing you can do is enter that room with a willingness to hear what’s being said. I know it’s hard. It’s only natural to want to defend ourselves – especially if we feel that we’re being unfairly judged.

But the worst thing you can do is walk into the room ready for the fight. It’s a bad move. When you are in fight mode, you can’t hear the words as they are being said. And you might actually wind up hearing something useful for your own career – if you just listen.

I know that’s easier said than done. Whether you know it or not, even when we think we’re listening, we often have our internal filters going big time. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear or the words get colored in a way that reflects what we think the other person feels about us – or what we feel about them. Words that may be fairly harmless can come in and get processed in a way that turns them into big-time button-pushers. Oh yeah! You think I can do better? Well that’s what my mother used to say and I hated my mother! (Although usually the buttons aren’t that obvious.)

So more often than not, we’ve walked away from a bad review not having heard what was really said or having incorrectly interpreted the real meaning behind it. All the while interjecting lots of our own thoughts and associations into every word.

How to improve listening when we get work feedback

  • Make a deal with yourself to listen from a place of knowing nothing and wanting to learn.
  • Let your boss finish his thoughts before even trying to respond.
  • Don’t run a script of automatic responses in your head while your boss is talking. While you’re doing that, you’re missing a lot of what is being said.
  • Ask clarifying questions. (Allowing your boss to finish the point s/he is making, of course.) Rephrase what you think you heard so you can be sure you got it right.
  • Show a willingness to listen by assuming a friendly, welcoming posture. You want your boss to know you’re willing to hear what s/he has to say. (If you keep your arms crossed in front of you, for example, it shows you are defending.)

What else should you do or say during the job review?

  • Let your boss know you appreciate the constructive criticism (as hard as it is to say that).
  • Discuss any points you think are unfair, but do so as calmly and intelligently as possible, making solid points for yourself by drawing on concrete examples – rather than simply saying it’s not true while looking all upset.
  • Don’t bring up co-workers and point to how they are treated in comparison to you. It won’t help and makes you look like a cry-baby.
  • Do calmly come up with things that you have improved on or accomplished over the last year that your boss may have forgotten to mention.
  • Ask your boss for specific things you might work on over the next year.
  • Make sure s/he knows you want to improve and are taking her/his words seriously.
  • Thank her or him at the end, smiling, looking directly into her/his eyes, and shaking hands. You want to walk out with an air of positive strength and an honest commitment to improve. Even if not everything said feels fair, there’s always something you can work on. None of us is perfect.

Afterwards, send your boss a short e-mail note thanking her/him again for the constructive criticism and outlining the things you intend to do. Ask for any additional suggestions. This not only serves as a contract of sorts between you, but provides you written proof should there be more going on than just a less-than-glowing review.

A bad review can give you a chance to improve

It’s important to keep your perspective. I’ve known people who walk away devastated (and show it in their work attitude) just because the didn’t get “excellent” in every category. That’s way out of proportion and only hurting yourself.

But sometimes, a bad review is your boss’s way of putting you on notice that you better get your act together if you want to keep your job. If, during the review you get any sense that it might be the latter, then make sure you ask your boss directly whether you should be worried about losing your job. Better to know than not know.

But as I said, in most cases, bad reviews are just a wake-up call. The most important thing for you to look at is whether any of it came as a shock to you. If so, you might want to improve your office radar and also ask your boss for more regular meetings that help you know how s/he feels about your work. In fact, after a bad review, I’d make it a point to connect more regularly to discuss how things are going. And also, make sure your boss finds out about things you do well!

We all get bad reviews of some kind. So don’t feel bad!

I know one person who got a rotten review – so bad he felt like quitting – and he went around sulking and angry at everyone. But after we had a long talk, he stopped obsessing about everything he doesn’t get enough appreciation for (the list was long) and instead decided to take an approach that might actually do him some good. Whether he was right or wrong in fact, his way just wasn’t working.

So he sat down with his boss in a professional manner and sincerely acknowledged there was room for improvement – and that he would do whatever was necessary to the best of his ability. He also discussed some of the areas he wanted to get into that he hadn’t yet been given the opportunity to take on.

His boss was very happy about the improved attitude and willingness to change. They made a deal that if he buckled down and improved on his assigned tasks (and attitude) and did what the company needed from him, he would be given a chance to take on a some of the new things he really wanted. He did. They did. And he is now in a new role doing what he loves.

All he had to do was switch from his perpetual “they don’t appreciate me” mode to a new, improved “I am taking charge of my own career” mode. Plus, he moved himself out of “victim” mode by treating his boss as an ally and not an enemy. Ironically, the bad evaluation became the beginning pf his new career.

If you wind up getting one of those bad evaluations, try your best to let any resulting negative feelings go as soon as possible. See it as the beginning of the rest of your career – since it is. If you get stuck in being pissed off, you’ll only prove your boss’s point.

Instead, focus on what actions you can take now to show your boss – and yourself – how good you really are!

We usually have at least two choices: accept things as they are or change! Since you’re already at this job, it really does pay to give it another chance by seeing what you can do to make things better for yourself. You might surprise yourself.

But of course, if it’s really time for you to go…then see this as your ticket to something better. Sometimes when bad evaluations happen to good people it turns out to be a blessing. :)

Good luck!

~ Ronnie Ann


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Hi,

    I recently had my 6 month review and I was torn apart. I was never given such feedback before the review and so I thought I was doing just fine. A particular aspect of my job has not been performed as per expectations. Since then, I’ve been having monthly reviews, but I have not been given any projects that will help demonstrate that I can do that aspect of the job. Will they just be letting me go?

  2. Thank you so much for this article Ronnie Ann. It’s exactly what is needed to handle this sort of situation in the best way possible and incredibly useful!

  3. Hello I have been with this company for five years and never was given a bad review until now. I always do my job and th job of 3 others. I stay late when needed and work to cover other shifts when people are away on vacation. I just wonder if maybe they looked for excuses to refrain from giving me a raise for budget reasons. Should I take this issue to my HR manager?

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      It’s hard to tell whether or not HR will help you. Do you know any other employee who has successfully resolved a similar issue working with HR? That would be the key for me.

      If you go to HR, don’t try to read any motivation into what has happened because you’ll only be guessing and you could very easily be guessing wrong. By sharing your suspicions with HR, you’ll sound like someone trying to avoid taking responsibility for your performance.

      So, if you go to HR, go with the idea of identifying the problem and fixing it because you enjoy the job and you want to continue to work there.

      If possible, see if you can transfer to a different department or manager inside this employer, or begin to look for a job outside of this organization.

      Good luck with your job search!

  4. Hi, I’ve just been told that my stress reaction is out of proportion to incidents and that it was inappropriate for me to cry when I got told by a colleague that I had mislead a partner agency’s Chief Executive on something (which the manager of that project told me later was wrong as I had followed his instructions precisely so all was good). I cried because I was shocked and thought I was going to be fired.

    Anyway, this is the example my manager has given me as a rationale for me getting a bad performance review. I think there must be something more in it but I don’t know what to do. Help!!

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Kate,

      This should be recoverable for you. You need to be open to learning how to improve your performance, without being defensive. You must also do your best to refrain from crying in the office again.

      Ask to speak with your manager. Tell him that you take the job very seriously, want ALWAYS to do your best, and, in this past situation, you were upset that you had not performed as well as you want to perform. Apologize for crying, say that NOW you understand it isn’t considered appropriate in the office, you have learned from the experience, and it won’t happen again.

      Then, ask if there is anything else that needs improvement because you want to learn how to do the job exactly the way that the company wants the job done.

      If crying is the only complaint your manager has, then this should take care of the situation. If your manager has other areas where he thinks you need to improve your performance, listen to what he has to say, and do your best to meet his requests.

      Chalk it up to a learning experience, and do your best to live up to what you have just told your manager.

      Good luck!

  5. I am trying to seek re-employment with a prior employer. After applying several times and getting emails indicating they are interviewing other applicants I finally talked to a recruiter. The recruiter indicated I am not eligible for rehire due to me leaving the company due to poor performance. First of all I did not leave due to poor performance issues, but due to the requirements of my job changing and no longer having the “newly added” qualifications. I did not leave due to poor performance. How do I clear this up with my prior employer so they will consider me for re-employment?

  6. i think it is managers who are really kidingers and are threatened. I had mine throw out the million things I did right and focused on one minor mistake and ripped me off my whole bonus. Needless to say, I like myself too much to stay in this rathole and will find people that appreciate my hard work.

  7. I worked for a company for 8 years and always received outstanding reviews but when I left to relocate to my parents she was so angry she tried to sue me. She gave me a horrible review and when I tried to go back to work there after two months they said something about my background check which is that manager. I now find myself without a job because of something that happened 10 years ago. I need a recourse to get my job back


  9. That’s what this article is all about, Mara. I give point-by-point tips. Do you have a specific question?

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