Always “Push Back” at Poor Performance Reviews

ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: After seven years on his media sales job, with outstanding performance reviews, David got a new boss. Two months later, in his annual performance review, he was given on overall “unacceptable” rating. When he questioned the rating, and the inevitable lowered bonus that was sure to follow, he was told that he would have to go on a “Performance Improvement Plan,” often called a “P.I.P.” for short, for a period of sixty days. If David didn’t drastically shape up, he was told, he would have to “ship out.” The goals set for his “improvement” over the sixty days – including sales targets that were not reachable – were simply impossible to attain. He was being set up to fail, without any question.

David set about to document his successes, and the arbitrary manner his new boss used to review him. The review, by a boss of just two months, was in itself a violation of the performance review process’s required procedures. David showed, too, that the P.I.P. Plan goals were set so high as to be unattainable, by anyone. He prepared a memo to his boss’s boss’s boss, and requested a meeting. When denied the meeting, but instead referred to Human Resources, David went to the company CEO by way of memo, that was a model of respect, reasonableness and rationality. That seemed to turn things around: David’s performance improvement plan was withdrawn, and he was to report in the future to a different individual, with whom he shared mutual respect and professionalism. The crisis was averted.

LESSONS TO LEARN: I have a book on my bookshelf entitled “Rightful Discharge,” subtitled “How to Fire People Without Getting Sued.” It is a sort of manual for employers who want to fire, downsize or lay off employees without obeying the laws, and without paying severance. The book can be boiled down to this simple – and cynical – message: If you want to fire someone, make it appear that he or she has either (a) resigned, (b) engaged in bad conduct, or (c) has not performed the job well. [That last one – poor performance – is the easiest, because “performance” is so often subjective.] But the book’s central, cynical message goes on: No matter which of the three reasons you choose, “MAKE A PAPER TRAIL.”

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: If you receive a Poor Performance Review, you might just be in the process of being set up for firing in this way. If you’ve recently received a poor performance review, it’s critical to “PUSH BACK.” Address the issues, give examples of positive achievement, cite names of happy customers, don’t be afraid to claim credit you’re rightly due, and don’t be afraid to explain why either circumstances beyond your control or others acting against your efforts, may be responsible for missed deadlines or goals. Be specific and factual; don’t be general or complaining. But most important, MAKE A PAPER TRAIL OF YOUR OWN: Make certain that your own performance counter-appraisal is delivered to your supervisor, his or her supervisor, and the human resources department have received a copy by means they can’t deny; email is one of the best.

By PUSHING BACK in this way – especially with a paper trail – you will be doing three important things at once: First, you are increasing your job security by decreasing the negative paper trail in your HR file; Second, you are increasing your leverage in case you are let go, because you have established a paper trail of improper acts (we call them “false, fraudulent and defamatory”) against you that must be addressed; and (c) Third, you are giving out a subtle, yet powerful, message: “Don’t Tread on Me.”

If you would like to obtain a “model” memo to help you respond to a  Performance Review [click here].