Vault's Careers Blog

Career advice and job search strategies for the modern careerist

How to Deal With a Bad Performance Review at Work

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AP Photo/ Rob Swanson

A recent blog post on health and wellness from the New York Times‘ Tara Parker-Pope points an accusing finger at the culture of performance reviews. According to the blog, in all but the rarest cases perfomance reviews are a source of stress and are potentially harmful to an employee’s health.

One of the reasons: “Annual reviews not only create a high level of stress for workers […] but end up making everybody — bosses and subordinates — less effective at their jobs. ”

From a blizzard of stats and opinions in the piece, one clear theme emerges: that workplace stress is a major contributor to health problems, and that performance reviews cause stress. Ergo, reviews should go. The problem, however, is that they can’t. The reason: they’re necessary, and there really isn’t much in the way of credible alternatives out there.

If we accept that the review is here to stay for the foreseeable future, then, the least you can do is be prepared lest you should ever be on the receiving end of one that is less than positive. Here, then, are some do’s and don’ts:

Do pay attention to the criticism. As subjective as performance reviews may be, chances are if someone’s taking the time to tell you that your performance isn’t up to snuff, there’s something you can do to improve it. And if they don’t volunteer specifics on where you’re going wrong, ask for them. If you’re still not satisfied, ask for them in writing.

Don’t get defensive or make excuses. Of course, if there’ s a genuine reason beyond your control that sales dipped 20 percent or you couldn’t get that project in on time, bring it up if you feel that your supervisor has overlooked it. Most bosses, however, know the difference between an employee who’s lagging due to lack of sleep over the new baby and the one who’s just checked out.

Do ask what steps you need to take to improve your performance. Reviews aren’t just about making an employee account for what they have or haven’t done; they’re also opportunities to discuss what and how you should be doing. A good supervisor or manager will be able to explain what you need to do to start meeting their standards. Of course, if they can’t explain, or you get the impression that the review is more personal than professional, you can always jump to the final option.

Don’t overreact. No-one is perfect, and there’s no reason to assume that a negative review is the end of your career, or even the beginning of the end. Think of it instead as an opportunity to grow and correct areas where you may have veered off course.

Do thank your supervisor/manager for their criticism. This shows that you take what they’re saying seriously, and also suggests that you’re aware that their position—i.e. giving you criticism—isn’t an easy one to be in.

Don’t brood on the review, or use it as an excuse for hostility. That’s the fastest way out of the door with no hope of a useful reference. Instead, take the initiative to over-deliver and impress wherever possible—whether it’s by working longer hours, volunteering for extra projects, or just making sure that your accomplishments end up in front of the right people.

Of course, sometimes none of that is good enough. Reviews, as the Times blog suggests, can be used to settle personal scores, and they can cause working relationships to deteriorate beyond all hope of repair. In those circumstances, then, there’s one final piece of advice:

Do start looking for another job. If you don’t see any way to turn a negative review into a positive one in future, the best thing you can do is to jump before you’re pushed. That’s one way of guaranteeing that you’ll cut out the stress factor, and maybe even heighten your chances of getting a positive appraisal to take to your would-be future employer.

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