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How to dispute a bad performance review

a woman shows a checklist as part for bad performance review

A bad performance review doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom

Your latest performance review has just arrived, and your heart has dropped! “OMG – look at this bad performance review; should I quit?” spins through your mind again and again. But don’t be in a rush or jump to conclusions. Allow yourself to calm down and relax for a while. Go for a short walk outside or spend some time in a chill-out space away from your immediate work environment if you can.

Say that you just need a few minutes if well-meaning colleagues ask if you’re okay. Don’t blurt out you just got a bad performance review and attract unnecessary attention because you won’t be up to it until you’ve calmed down. You might even say things you later regret. All your reactions will likely be over-emotional. Also, involving others can create unnecessary stress and even friction.

If your company has one-on-one’s between managers and employees to discuss the results, ask for it to be deferred. Requesting a day or two gives you time to go through it thoroughly and respond rationally. Avoid dwelling on the review while at work. Focus on your job, and make sure that you keep your mind busy until home time.

When you’re struggling to keep a grip, remind yourself that according to Gallup, only 14% of employees agree with their performance reviews. So there’s nothing wrong with how you’re feeling.

Table of contents
Allow your emotions to surface and let them out
What to do if you want to keep your job
How to dispute a bad performance review

Allow your emotions to surface and let them out

Once you’re at home, release your sadness, shock, anger or disappointment! It’s a bummer; no one likes getting told they suck at something.

That’s why you must release pent-up emotions before you go through the review again. Misinterpretations will linger if you suppress how you feel. When we’re suddenly blindsided, we become defensive and jump to conclusions. Giving yourself some self-pity time and even shedding a few tears will ground you back in reality.

If your family is overprotective and will take your side no matter what, don’t involve them because that will only fuel your emotions. Conversely, if they’ll offer constructive criticism and objective support, rope them in.

Read through the report and see if it comes across differently now that you’ve dropped your defenses. Now reread it, this time making notes and highlighting parts that upset you. Write down why it’s distressing to you. There could be countless reasons, but consider four primary emotions:

  • You feel betrayed: you might be giving your job your all and don’t understand the criticism.
  • You feel anger: beware your ego – anger and defensiveness can stem from false pride or arrogance.
  • You feel sadness: you could know that you’re not doing that well but didn’t realize the impact or extent.
  • You feel fear: your job could be on the line, or you might feel powerless, particularly if your manager has poor management skills.

Evaluate and gain a realistic perspective

It’s time to decide if this is a fight or flight situation. Not fight in an aggressive way, but is this job worth holding onto in the long run. Are you happy at work, and do you see a future for yourself within the organization? In a well-managed and transparent company culture, you have a say and therefore, some control over how the situation evolved into a bad performance review.

On the other hand, if you often dread going to work a bad performance review can be the catalyst to start exploring other job options. It’s time to take flight! Never just walk out and abscond though, even if your manager is a tyrant. That will affect future opportunities because if anyone does a past employment reference, you’ll be in the wrong. Even if it’s toxic and there’s no honest communication in the workplace, do the right thing. Put your pride in your pocket, gather up your courage and return to work until you’ve secured another job.  

A choice to stay means you must come up with a strategy of how things can be improved. When your job isn’t worth fighting for, keep doing your best and lay low until you get another offer. Never burn your bridges, even if you’ve been wronged; you never know who you might meet up with again (or even need) in future.

What to do if you want to keep your job

Divide the report into negative comments you agree with and those you don’t. Agreeing with an adverse opinion doesn’t necessarily imply that you take the blame. It merely means that you agree that a problem exists.  

Now come up with solutions as to how the issues can get resolved. To regain trust, or show that you are serious, you must come into the performance review meeting with potential solutions and genuine sentiments. Bring explanations that can be backed up by facts, but avoid dragging colleagues in by saying things like “you can ask Jo. She saw what happened.” This is your review, not anyone else’s, so show maturity.

However, you don’t have to swallow untruths either, but keep your side professional and calm.

3 questions to ask yourself

When analyzing each bad point, ask yourself these questions and answer honestly without making excuses.

1) Is there some truth here?

Have you, for example, missed a few deadlines and if so, why? Maybe you hate that part of your job and tend to push it aside until it's crunch-time without realizing the impact on team members. Or you’ve inherited additional responsibilities, and your manager doesn’t realize how stretched you are. Admit your wrongs and start thinking of potential solutions.

2) Did you ignore warning signs?

Are you complacent and disengaged from your job or team? Often we overlook hints and innuendo, preferring to think that the other person is wrong. We get into a comfort zone and prefer not to extend ourselves. Did you embrace or resist change? Or when things went wrong, did you fail to see your role in the team’s failure? Do you find your job boring and lacking challenge, which implies you’ve likely outgrown it?

Promotion can also make us under-perform because if we’re under-qualified, we might not realize that we’re not meeting expectations. We lack the big picture and few companies train staff on how to be a good manager. Promoting someone prematurely without the right training can result in them not necessarily comprehending what’s expected of them.

3) How can this be fixed?

Once you accept that some criticism is valid, you can devise realistic ways to overcome the problems.

Let’s say you dislike paying attention to detail and prefer multi-tasking that doesn’t require strict adherence to procedures, tell your manager. Ask if you can be given more versatile responsibilities and have the detail-orientated tasks given to someone more suitable.

As workplaces evolve, so do our responsibilities, and job descriptions seldom keep pace. List all your current responsibilities and compare them to your original job description. Have you received additional training, or do you need a skills-upgrade?

Also, if you’re suffering from mental health issues like workplace anxiety or depression at work, be honest. Employers can offer different interventions to support you until your back on track.

How to dispute a bad performance review

Be open-minded and willing to listen. Bring your analysis because writing a response to a bad performance review ensures that you stay in control of your emotions. Make it immediately clear that you intend to resolve the matter and that you’re willing to accept alternative solutions to yours as well.

Remain calm if you’re faced with hostility and don’t react with aggression or sarcasm. If your manager sees that you’re genuine, they may back off and be more receptive. State your case calmly from the start. A suitable bad performance review rebuttal example is to say “I know you’ve given your honest opinions, but I’d like to discuss a few points so that we can resolve this amicably.”

Taking notes distracts you from hearing what’s actually being said. Instead, write key words next to each point and verbally re-confirm at the end of each topic. Immediately after the meeting, write a detailed summary and share it with your manager asking that they agree with what was covered. (It’s a good idea to keep their confirmation of your outline in a safe place away from work in case you need it one day.)

Close the meeting by asking if you can get more regular feedback and if you can raise issues of concern with your manager while you’re implementing changes. Also, if there were positive comments in the review, acknowledge them.


Not all bad performance reviews are bad news. Willingness from both parties can turn them into a great learning curve and an opportunity for improved engagement. But there are also times when it’s a clear sign that the writing’s on the wall and it’s time to move on.

Honest self-reflection is crucial to dealing with a bad performance review. Being open and transparent during the meeting is equally vital. If your emotions take over and tears well up, don’t worry. Genuine tears are an indication that someone really cares and that they’re human.

Fake tears to garner sympathy or shift blame, on the other hand, will have the opposite effect. A manager with enough emotional intelligence will quickly discern genuine concern from manipulation.

F4S is a people management platform that’s backed up by years of scientific research. We help people discover their work style and assist employers and employees in working better together. Knowing what motivates staff and where their blind spots are, improves productivity and understanding. 

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