Surprised By a Bad Performance Review? Here's How to Bounce Back, According to an Expert

manager and employee meeting


Jennifer Bewley
Jennifer Bewley
My first performance review came 16 years after I joined the workforce. I started my career at a small Wall Street firm and we had daily reviews — measured in gains and losses. There was simply no need to sit down and discuss anyone’s performance. 
When the first formal review process came my way, the idea that I had to sit down and talk about myself was discombobulating. My boss was collaborative and we talked nearly every day. What else was there to say? Not much, and that was the best part about these annual meetings — there was never a surprise. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. 

How do I come back from a bad performance review?

After a shockingly terrible review, a Fairygodboss member asked the community, “Should I just start looking for another job?” Mind you, this was not just a bad review. It was a review that had her believing she is living in an alternative universe to her manager. Before she makes a big life change, I thought the best person to answer her question would be an HR professional because they know the other side.
How do you deal with an unfair appraisal? Bettina Deynes, vice president of HR at SHRM, the world’s largest HR professional society, said, “Unfortunately, many times this is the only recourse for employees who feel that they have exhausted every avenue for fair and equitable treatment relating to performance evaluation to no avail. The recognition that an unfair environment is not likely to change leaves little hope, and a job search for an enterprise that clearly values the contributions of employees is sometimes a conscientious and dedicated employee’s only option.”
Yes, you should start looking for another job. How can you improve your odds that the next job will be fulfilling and fair?

How to handle the performance review process.

• Find out how the company handles performance management early on.

In nearly every job interview scenario, you'll meet with someone from recruiting or human resources. Even if it's a screener interview, use the time to your advantage and ask questions about their expertise. The way a company tackles performance management can tell you how they value their employees. 
There are basically three examples of performance management being practiced by organizations today, Deynes explained.
 “The first involves the organization that is totally dedicated to a formal performance management system that involves frequent, meaningful communication between every supervisor and employee in the setting of measurable goals and standards of performance that are tied directly into the organization’s strategic plan.
“The second example is more common, unfortunately. It is comprised of a haphazard collection of policies and practices, with annual evaluations, that may or may not be conducted on a timely basis, and evaluation instruments composed of subjective, impossible to measure such as “works well with others,” “degree of professionalism,” etc. criteria that supervisors are reluctant or unable to justify, thereby assigning arbitrary ratings from 1 to 5, and usually assigning blanket 3s in a feeble attempt to keep peace.
“The third type involves organizations that have no discernible performance management system."

• Mine the data.

We all know the system is only as good as the input. Once you know the company’s system, you have a frame to use employee reviews and turnover data more effectively. And, even if the perfect job, has a more haphazard or no system at all — at least you know what you are getting into and can adjust your expectations accordingly. In fact, we all should adjust our view. Only 2% of HR professionals gave their companies an A for performance management, according to an SHRM survey

• Dispute your performance review internally.

If the best circumstance is a new job, there are still times when personal responsibilities make that an impossibility. To dispute your review internally, it’s best if there is a formal grievance process already in place. Even with a system, there is a downside to filing a complaint. Deynes warns, “The long-term effect on an employee resulting from the filing a formal complaint, however, can be a matter of informal harassment and retaliation and can vary from none to rather severe, depending on the management/employee culture in place.”
If your manager doesn’t have your back, that's a scary place to be as an employee. Management still works for the company; only you work for you.

More about performance reviews.

Your performance review should be an opportunity, not something to dread. 

For employees.

Not sure how to handle your next meeting? Check out:

For managers.

Are you a manager? If you're in a position of handling your employees' performance reviews, be sure to read:

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Jennifer Bewley is the founder of Uncuffed, which provides detailed research into prospective employers. Jennifer has an unhealthy love of financial data and speaking her mind and she uses each to help candidates choose the company they work for wisely.