How to deal with a bad performance review when your boss is against you

  • Insider spoke to career experts about the steps you should take after getting a bad review.
  • A hard reflection is in order. Ask yourself: Is what my boss said credible?
  • If you think the review is inaccurate or contains incorrect information, please feel free to speak up.

It’s never good to come to the end of a negative performance review. But when your boss seems indifferent — or worse, he’s after you — the situation can feel downright alarming.

“Getting a bad review might not be that troubling in and of itself,” said Allison Elias, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “But when your manager isn’t in your corner — not aligned with you and not trying to help you move forward — it can be really stressful and draining.”

The current economic landscape of skyrocketing inflation, a plummeting stock market and mass layoffs isn’t doing your cortisol any favors. You may be wondering, “Should I get a new job?”

While panic mixed with hints of anger and disbelief is natural, it’s not productive. Insider spoke to Elias and other career experts about the five steps you should take after getting a bad review.

Do some hard self-reflection

For starters, don’t be defensive. And don’t say anything you’ll regret later, said Allison Task, a New Jersey career coach. Instead, ask your manager for a copy of the review so you can read the feedback carefully before responding. Then do some hard self-reflection. Ask yourself: is this review credible? Does my boss (maybe even somehow) have a point?

Get second and third opinions, task recommended. Ask trusted mentors, peers, and others willing to shine a light on your blind spots what they see.

“Show genuine curiosity,” she said. “You’re not looking for validation or a hug — you’re looking for honesty.”

Look for signals in broader context

If you’ve gotten a bunch of great reviews and this is the first bad one, maybe something has changed at your job or the organization. If your boss seems inclined to work with you to improve, maybe there is hope.

But if this isn’t your first, or you’ve had consistently negative feedback, Task said, “You have to keep in mind that this job may not be a good fit.”

Tristan Layfield, a Detroit-based career coach and resume consultant, said there’s a good chance you’ll be ushered out of the organization, especially if your boss suggests putting you on a formal performance improvement plan. Or you could be targeted by a boss who is grading employees for layoffs.

Politely disagree if the feedback is inaccurate

Tristan Layfield

Find out what specific behaviors and actions your boss expects of you, advises Tristan Layfield, a career coach.

Tristan Layfield

Next, formulate an answer—and put it in writing, as the documentation might come in handy later.

If you think the review is inaccurate or contains incorrect information, please feel free to speak up. Line-by-line rebuttal isn’t wise, but Layfield said some well-reasoned (and polite) rebuttals that refute or weaken your boss’s assessment might be warranted. Include objective measures of your performance that support your case and highlight achievements that your managers may have overlooked.

Then talk to your boss. Test the waters and find out if your manager is receptive to seeing your interpretation, Layfield said.

Ask questions and gain clarity, he added. For example, say your boss said you didn’t take the initiative.

“Ask, ‘Can you give me a time when you wanted me to take the initiative and I didn’t?'” Layfield said. “‘How does it look for you to take initiative?'”

Find out if the situation can be resolved

During the conversation, listen for signs that your boss is willing to help you improve. This includes things like open body language, an encouraging tone of voice, and a plan for continuing your employment intact.

Find out the specific behaviors and actions your boss wants from you, Layfield said. Ask how your progress is being measured, he advised, and develop a system that keeps your boss updated on what you’re doing to improve.

“Make sure your boss is helping you find solutions,” he said.

Know when it’s time to go

Allison Elias

“An unsupportive boss presents you with a record of what you did wrong without a plan,” said Allison Elias of the University of Virginia.


Otherwise, it might be time to cut your losses, UVA’s Elias said.

“A supportive boss wants you to move forward with valid criticism,” she added. “An unsupportive one without a plan presents you with a record of what you did wrong.”

It’s much easier to find a new job when you already have one. So depending on the size of your organization, see if you can navigate to a different job or team. In the meantime, activate your network and look elsewhere for roles.

Elias also suggested uncovering external opportunities to establish your expertise. For example, offer to speak at an industry conference.

“Look for things that are under your control and that your boss can’t take away from you,” she said.

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