In the 14 years I spent in the corporate world I only really got one BAD review. Most of my reviews where the typical “eh, check the boxes and go back to work” kind of thing that reviews often are. But this one where I had mark “satisfactory” or “above average” for most of the boxes, my boss had “unsatisfactory” and “needs improvement”. I sat in stunned silence as she roasted me for well over an hour. I was shocked, dazed, confused and angry. But worse, I had absolutely no idea how to handle it. She had tried to pressure me into signing that I “agreed” with her assessment . Fortunately I didn’t. But now what?
The whole experience ended badly for me; with HR, my boss’s boss, the site boss where I worked, the boss I dotted line reported to and the vendor boss I supported all getting involved (let’s not even talk about the confusion of so many bosses). Here are a few things I learned from the experience and a few others I've learned since that you can use if you get an unfair review from a boss or a customer.
Keep a dated list of all the “atta-boys” you receive – My boss produced a dated list of every single infraction, mistake, complaint and gossip about me over the past year. When I said, “I get praised by clients, customers and coworkers all the time” the response was “Prove it”. It never occurred to me to write down or save the pats-on-the-back I got. When I tried to create a list I could only provide hard evidence for 6-10. Which was NOTHING compared to the list of negatives my boss had.
Keep track of the negatives too – I also couldn’t refute the list of evils my boss had. She had dates and times of conversations I never remembered having. Clients she said called to complain about me whose names I didn’t know. And conference call conversations she had “sat in on” (without my knowledge) that I had long since forgotten. If you have a boss who is knit-picking you, make sure you’re paying attention and make notes about your side of the conversation. At least then you’ll have a fighting chance of defending yourself.
Ask for details – I received a blanketed “you are a bad employee and you’re not doing your job” when I tried to rebuff the review I’d received. What I didn’t do was ask for specific details about the events she had listed as “proof”. The list was accepted because I couldn’t refute it. If I had it to do again I would go through each example and ask for the context of each event, the details under which the information was gained and why, on that date/time she had chosen to handle the situation the way she did. The reason for this would be twofold: 1 – If there was a legitimate problem I would be able to learn something that might help me fix it. 2 – If there wasn’t a legitimate problem the “proof” would start to fall apart.
Ask how to do better – I didn’t ask how to fix the problems she saw. I just accepted that I was the problem and I should be a better employee. Looking back I realized I had no idea how to do that because I was doing my job to the best of my ability. Having a checkmark in a box that said “unsatisfactory” didn’t help me fix anything. Now I would ask “Can you give me an example of what it looks like for this to be done well?” and “What does satisfactory look like?”
Ask about things that were done well – Nowhere in that review was there a word about anything I’d done well. I came to work every day, never called out sick, arrived on time, stayed late and answered my phone when I was on call. No doubt there was SOMETHING positive she could have said about that year. But she didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. Asking would have helped mitigate the all-bad-all-the-time feeling of the review and subsequent meetings.
Search for deeper meaning – At the time I felt like my boss had decided in her mind that I was a bad employee and her only goal was to find a way to prove it (I still believe that). But I didn’t voice that thought at the time. Now I would ask questions like, “When and why did you decide you needed to keep such close tabs on my infractions?” “What caused you to decide that?” “Was there an event that set the ball rolling?” “Why didn’t we have a conversation about at least some of these things when they occurred?”
I knew that boss “didn’t like me” but I would have never guessed that she would go so far out of her way to make me look bad. The advice I give when I’m asked how to handle a boss like that sounds something like this: Keep careful notes about how you spend your time, clients who praise you and clients who complain, pay close attention to and write down any feedback you get from your boss and be prepared to speak to any and all interactions and meetings you’ve been in. Being in a job like that is exhausting. So in your spare time, look for a better option. It’s always more rewarding to work for someone who appreciates you.
As always, I wish you the MOST from your potential!