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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

So You Got a Bad Review: Should You Go to HR?

Needs improvement.

Does not meet expectations.


If you’ve ever gotten a bummer of a review, you’re familiar with the sinking feeling you get when you’re relegated to the bottom 20% of the performance food chain.

Early in my career I got a review I didn’t like, from a manager who practically never gave me feedback—that is, until she unloaded it all in the review. I wrote my rebuttal, then accidentally left it on the copier, where she found it.

Talk about embarrassing.

I’m not the only one who’s gotten what seems like an unfair review, though. It’s not unusual to hear of frustrated employees who feel ambushed by bad reviews. In a 2013 poll of U.S. employees, 53% of respondents said their review was not a fair, accurate representation of their performance, and 65% said they were surprised by review feedback they got. On top of that, 69% of employees said they weren’t given specific examples to support the feedback they received.

Bottom line: At some point in your career, you’re likely to get a performance review that you don’t agree with. So, what now? Should you take your complaint to your human resources department to make sure your performance gets represented accurately?

Well, that depends on the situation, your relationship with your manger, and the role of HR in your organization. Wendy Matyjevich, an HR executive tweeting at @myhrreality, says, “HR walks a fine line representing the company versus the employee. True HR professionals are risk managers who will investigate fully without bias.”

If you do decide to go to HR, go with the understanding that HR has a dual accountability. Knowing that, here are three times that a negative review might warrant a chat with HR.

Your Manager is Seeking Revenge

If believe your manager is taking retaliatory measures against you, you must go to HR. For example, let’s say you didn’t agree on a particular customer strategy and you escalated the issue above your boss to his or her manager to get it resolved. You now have an awful review in the middle of a long history of positive reviews—and a manager who looks like she’s seeking revenge because of your escalation. HR needs to be in the loop.

Your Manager is a Bully

If your manager has been coached on or cited for behavior issues in the past, and your review appears to continue that pattern of behavior, HR will want to know. Say, for example, you receive lots of negative, strongly worded feedback, with very little specificity or evidence to support your boss’s arguments (e.g., “There’s no question that Geoff needs to learn how to do his job better, or he’ll be on the layoff list”). Bringing HR into the discussion will help evaluate what needs to happen next—whether that means getting your manager more training and development or something more serious.

Your Manager Can’t Back Up the Feedback

If you receive a review that’s incongruent with positive feedback you’ve received all year, and your manager isn’t able to articulate the sudden temperature change in your performance, it might be worth a conversation with HR. However, you need to go into this conversation with facts, figures, and other data points that support the discrepancy between the messages you’ve been getting throughout the year and what is on your review.

If you do decide to go to HR, you must be calm, professional, respectful, and solutions-oriented. You can’t whine and complain about what a jerk your manager is; that won’t help your cause. Remember, after all, that HR is there to support the needs of the organization. Assume that anything you share will not be treated confidentially, and will likely make its way back to your manager.

So, think about all possible angles before you visit HR. If your review contains constructive feedback you truly do need to hear or is congruent with other feedback you’ve received throughout the year, going to HR might tag you as someone who can’t figure out how to manage a relationship with his or her manager, or—even worse—someone who’s generally un-coachable.

Instead, when you get negative news that’s warranted, respond directly, professionally, and specifically to your manager. Seek to understand his or her perspective so that you can take away the meaningful nuggets that can help improve your performance.

And to make sure there are no surprises next time, make it a priority to get specific feedback from your manager and peers on a regular, ongoing basis. If it doesn’t flow freely, ask for it! Schedule regular update meetings with your manager, and ask for specific examples of areas where you’re doing well and where you can improve.

A performance review should never contain surprises. But if you do get an unfair negative review, use your best judgment to determine if a visit to HR is in your best interest—or if you simply need to be more proactive about getting feedback from your manager. Commit to taking action to turn things around.

Just—whatever you do—don’t write a long rebuttal and leave it on the copier.

Photo of review form courtesy of Shutterstock.