Performance Evaluations from Hell – and how to survive them


Almost Everything I Know about Performance Evaluations I learned in the School of Life

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Susan C.

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, performance evaluations seem to be a fact of working life for employees of most companies or organizations.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually met anyone who claims to love performance evaluations.  I would guess that most people, including myself, have mixed feelings about the ordeal—an observation that seems to be borne out in the research literature on the subject. I have a friend who seems to loathe them and is convinced that not only are performance evaluations a waste of time, but they actually train people to be less–rather than more–creative, innovative, independent and productive.  He’s not alone in his thinking. An increasing number of HR specialists are beginning to reach a similar conclusion.  They argue that in its current format, the practice is more destructive than constructive, and is a holdover from earlier paternalistic ideologies about the relationship between employer and employee.

My perspective on performance evaluations and my suggestions on how to deal with negative performance evaluations are grounded in my 20+ years in the workforce and some little gems of wisdom from friends and colleagues over the years.   Most of my evaluations have been fair to good, but I’ve experienced a couple of truly hellish evaluations, courtesy of bully bosses. Since I’m not an HR specialist, I thought it might be useful to supplement my personal observations with some research into what HR specialists and management consultants have to say about why performance evaluations go wrong.

The Ideal Evaluation

Ideally, performance evaluations should be little more than a “mere formality” to keep the HR department happy by completing and returning their beloved evaluation forms. In the best case scenario, your manager checks in with you informally on a regular basis and is aware of your workload, your strengths and challenges, achievements over the last year, professional development activities, and career goals.  Better yet, your supervisor has excellent leadership skills, cares about his or her staff, and has learned how to give timely, appropriate, and genuinely constructive feedback when an issue first arises so you can actually respond at the point in time when it still matters.

The Reality

It would be fabulous if the above scenario was the reality for most of us, but unfortunately that probably isn’t the case. We may currently have an excellent boss who thinks we’re equally as wonderful, but life isn’t static.  Circumstances change and the fates might well conspire to give us a mediocre boss and a crummy performance evaluation at some point in time, whether we asked for it or not. Indeed, a close friend of mine figures that you should go into any job with the understanding that at some point in your career, you will most likely be given a negative performance evaluation—no matter how hard you work or how well you perform.  My friend is neither pessimistic nor paranoid.  But he has many years of experience in the workforce and understands that the longer you’ve been in the work force and the more jobs you’ve worked at, the greater are your chances of having a bad year or encountering a bad boss.

My bad evaluation cropped up a few years ago, 20+ years into my working life.  Given that I’d already seen some bullying behaviour from this boss, I kind of expected that my evaluation that year wasn’t exactly going to be a walk in the park.  Actually it was a walk in the park (albeit a rather unpleasant park)– compared to the events that followed.  That was the year that confirmed for me the value of good record keeping and detailed documentation.  It can be a bit tedious at times, but one day you may be very glad you had the foresight to maintain certain kinds of records.  I recommend keeping the following information from day one at any job you start:

1. A system for tracking your workload and project list. Make sure you update it on a regular basis and include information about start and end dates, delays (causes and how you dealt with them, any other important information about the project status).

2. A system for tracking vacation days, sick days and appointments.

3. Email follow-ups of any conversations about work assignments and projects. Keep hard copies in the relevant file folders.

4. Email follow-ups of any important conversations or meetings with your boss.  Outline the main points of the discussion, conclusions, decisions and any action items with their due dates.  Keep hard copies of these emails—computers have an annoying habit of crashing or vaporizing important information.

5. Print and file hard copies of any and all written praise you receive about your work or work habits. (Among other things, it’s a good mood lifter when you’re feeling blah.)

When Bad Evaluations Happen to Good Employees

Some of the  variables that contribute to a bad evaluation are clearly under our own control (life intervened and we had an off year, we overestimated our performance so we’re inevitably disappointed with the feedback we’re given, something about our job situation has changed and we’re not sure how we feel about it anymore, and so on). In these situations we need to accept responsibility for what we did or didn’t do, and start figuring out how to turn the situation around.

Your manager also has a huge role in affecting the quality of the evaluation process.  The effectiveness of the performance evaluation is going to be strongly influenced by her leadership skills, people skills and training, as well as her temperament and preferred work style (her personal work style and other styles that she’s most comfortable dealing with).

Most bosses don’t deliberately set out to conduct bad or unfair evaluations.  According to Susan Heathfield, many bosses would be much happier if they didn’t have to do performance evaluations at all: For the most part, managers apparently don’t like having to judge their staff any more than the employees appreciate feeling attacked and put on the defensive by the process. If this is so, why does this scenario happen often enough to give performance evaluations a bad name?

More often than not, managers conduct bad evaluations either because they have not been trained how to give employees constructive feedback, or their people skills leave much to be desired.  But, you ask, “Why would a company hire someone as a manager if that individual has no people skills and no idea how to give feedback?” It turns that often managers aren’t hired for their leadership abilities or people skills at all—they might get hired because of their technical expertise, or a myriad other reasons that have nothing to do with managing people. Furthermore, many companies don’t offer even basic training in leadership or constructive feedback skills to new management level appointees, so new managers are left to stumble along and figure out as best they can how to motivate and develop the members of their teams, provide timely and constructive feedback and conduct effective performance evaluations.   If managers are not given the training or feedback they need to improve their people skills, then it’s probably reasonable to expect that they will make mistakes when it’s time to do your performance evaluation.  Unfortunately, their mistakes can translate as nightmarish evaluations from your perspective.

Next week Susan will talk about how to deal with a bad performance evaluation.

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If you enjoyed this post then you will probably like this one too:

> What do I do if I’m unhappy at Work?

> How Does Your Confidence Affect Your Work?

Image courtesy of Fuschia Foot

14 thoughts on “Performance Evaluations from Hell – and how to survive them”

  1. Hey Karl,

    I find that most performance evaluations are a joke. Employees don’t really take them seriously, and it’s mostly because their managers don’t have the ability to deliver effective evaluations and to follow through on them. They need to learn this, if they want their subordinates to take performance evaluations seriously.

  2. Keeping good records is extremely helpful, not only for performance reviews but for writing up-to-date resumes as well. Which after all is what any one of us might be doing after we get a unflattering performance review from a manager that is on the war path!

  3. The problem with most evaluations is that all they show is the managers subjective feelings about the person. Almost none of it is based on your ability to do your job in reality. They leave the people who do care about their performance disgusted and disengaged half of the time. Employees who are unhappy often perform worse, and a vicious cycle begins.

  4. Hi Eduard,

    I get where you’re coming from with your conclusion about performance evaluations. If you looked at the links I’ve included to other articles, you’ll have noticed that you’re not alone in your point of view.

    It’s actually rather disconcerting that a practice which could, in theory, provide great value to both employees and their employers has devolved into a process that, at best, is seen as a “must do” and met with eye rolls on all sides and at worst as a traumatic debacle that gives rise to misunderstandings, poor morale and an unnecessarily high rate of staff turn over.

    Let’s hope that some of the more progressive views about performance evaluations I encountered in my research find their way into the practices of more companies and organizations.

  5. Hi DC Jobs,

    Thanks for the reminder that keeping good records is helpful when it comes to updating one’s resume. Having written comments of positive feedback from people other than your boss is also extremely helpful if you find yourself on the receiving end of an unfair evaluation: It can help you to put unflattering feedback in perspective and detach from the sting of the comments.

  6. Hi Katie,

    I’m inclined to agree with you to a large extent. It’s a sad state of affairs when good employees who care about their work have that passion and engagement squashed out of them by ineffective evaluation processes and results which then start the vicious cycle you refer to.

    If you check out some of the links in the article, you’ll see some potentially good approaches to conducting performance evaluations that remove a lot of the subjectivity. Stay tuned for Part Two of my article next week, and you’ll see how to put all that record keeping on your part to good use.

  7. Hi Karl and Susan,
    I’ve been blessed to never have had a performance evaluation! Ha except from my adult children. What a post that would be!

    Anyway my daughter just received one from her boss from hell. My advice…not to worry I don’t know one person who requests a file or maybe I’m just out of it. My personal belief is with a person like that you can’t change anything so don’t allow that person to change the way you think about yourself. You have to go above the battleground and hold a vision of yourself.

  8. Hi Susan

    Having been a teacher, I am only familiar with teacher evaluations, and know nothing about how they work in the corporate world. What I do know from that is that they were mostly for “show” and did little to change the poor teaching habits of some teachers, while they caused good teachers lots of extra work, and usually accompanied stress.

    While I think there should be some performance system in place, it needs to be definitely run on new paradigms where there is no bitterness generated between employers and employees, and that it leads to improvements in work ethics, habits and company dynamics. I know all that is possible, it just depends on how it is approached and by whom.

  9. I really like your focus on “systems” for tracking. Even keeping simple lists go a long way.

    One of the ways I’ve strengthened my reviews and really paint a more complete picture is I focus on a simple frame:
    – Results
    – How
    – Evidence
    – Analysis

    This paints a picture of the full impact, along with the process I used to get there. It gives me a chance to showcase the evidence in an objective way, and analyze it more objectively too.

  10. Hi Tess,

    Such gratitude,eh? After all the time, caring and energy poured into the unpaid labor of love that goes into raising kids the best you can, they reach adulthood and presume to evaluate your performance over the years. 😉 I say go for it and write the post! 😉

    Sorry to hear your daughter had to endure a performance evaluation from her boss from hell. I hope the experience wasn’t too painful. She has my empathy. I agree with you about not allowing a person like her boss to change the way you think about yourself.

    Unfortunately, if those comments are written as part a performance evaluation, they can end up in one’s employee file where they are likely to be considered the “official” vision or version of you and could come back to bite you. It’s probably better to deal with any unfairness, misperceptions or inaccurate observations/conclusions during the performance appraisal meeting and before signing off on the process.

    Keeping track of your own productivity and the kinds of feedback you receive from various people, is a good way to provide bosses with a more complete picture of what you’ve achieved over the last year. If the boss from hell still insists on being unfair or downplaying the amount of work successfully completed, then as distasteful as it is, it might be time to take a firm stand on the battlefield, and complain. Best of luck to your daughter, and I hope she has the good fortune of soon being blessed with a much nicer boss.

  11. Hi Evita,

    A performance evaluation system that is mostly for “show” and offers no real support or resources for employees to develop their skills or overcome blocks to performing well is just asking for bad feelings, stress, disillusionment and cynicism to set in. My perceptions are that often there’s far more talk and trumpeting about how an organization values and supports its staff than any meaningful action.

    I completely agree with you that a whole new paradigm for figuring out how to support both managers and staff with performance management needs to be developed. You might be interested in reading some of the approaches mentioned in the linked articles.

  12. Hi J.D.,

    Thanks for the feedback on the systems for tracking. It sounds as though you’ve put a great system into place for strengthening your own reviews. Thanks for sharing this approach with us. Do you have a more detailed description of your system posted anywhere on your blog? It would be a great resource for a lot of people.

  13. Richard |

    Performance evaluations make me feel sick just to think about. When I worked a job I just thought “Who are you to judge me?”. Work for yourself, much easier.

  14. Hi Richard,

    In my 20+ years of work, I’ve only had one evaluation that literally compromised my well-being–and that was the one that preceded a period of workplace bullying. It took awhile, but I got out and healed from the damage.

    Really an evaluation should be about your performance (Are you still effectively doing what you were hired for and get paid to do? Are there other things you’d like to learn or skills you’d like to use and how can we support you in your professional development?), but an awful lot of the performance evaluation tools used are too generic and focus on traits/attitudes that can only be assessed from a highly subjective perspective and leaves it open to some very unfair processes.

    I don’t really think we can get away from being judged or evaluated on our work, even if we work for ourselves. In fact, it’s our clients who then judge us on the quality of our work, and if we don’t measure up, we may not get paid (and we have an unhappy client who may well wipe out our reputation within our industry or field) and we certainly won’t get repeat business from them. But I guess there’s a perception at least that when you’re working for yourself you have some autonomy over who you take on as clients/ temporary employers. And maybe for some people, that makes it easier to deal with.

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