Bad performance review or warning letter, think carefully before acting

When a performance review or warning letter lands on your desk which you feel unfairly maligns your performance and contribution, what’s the next step? Should you put your head down and wait for the storm to pass or fight back?
Although this is a question I am often asked by clients, there is no right answer for everyone. More often than not, unless you are a newer employee, if you’ve had years of positive feedback and then a sudden slap in the face, the chances are you recently got a new boss or irritated the one you have. For some people, their initial impulse, regardless of their situation, is to write a rebutting letter. The very thought that there is a performance review or warning letter which unfairly criticizes their performance and misrepresents the truth sitting in a file with their name on it drives them crazy.
But step back for a moment. If things have been going downhill in your employment anyways and your intention is to find work elsewhere, what’s the point? Your personnel file is not a public document that anyone other than your employer can see. For better or worse, they own that file and can put whatever they want in it. Of course, just because something is in that file doesn’t mean it has any weight.
If the writing is on the door and you will be resigning in the not-too-distant future or are simply waiting for the axe to fall so that you can get a severance package, who cares?
Of course, if what you really want is to be terminated sooner or later with a package so that you can devote your time to looking for new employment, do write a rebuttal. Make it strong and short of using foul language, make it aggressive. Maybe it will irritate your boss just enough to consider spending the money to terminate you.
But if you are not confident that you are going to be able to find a job in short order, and, like the rest of us, have bills to pay, perhaps you should keep your head down.
It may be that your interest is not in leaving the company. Perhaps this is one boss in a long succession and the issues will pass. Your concern, however, is that if you are looking for a promotion within the organization some time in the future, somebody deciding upon your future advancement might see this warning letter or performance review and hesitate.
In this situation, you may want to put something in writing and ask that it also be put in your file. The employer doesn’t have to put anything in your file they don’t want to but they usually will. If you are going to write a rebuttal, before submitting it, edit it several times. Make sure it takes the high road and appears to some reader three years from now as very professional.
Where appropriate, acknowledge your weaknesses and your determination to improve. Everyone has weaknesses, even you. Even if the performance review or warning letter was unfair and malicious, chances are the boss is bright enough to pick on your weak spots. Have someone else read it for you. Ask them if it makes you look like somebody who can’t take criticism. If it does, it will do more damage to your promotion chances than the original document.
If you are in a situation where you think the storm will pass, perhaps holding your tongue is the best option. A micro-managing boss often loses focus and targets someone else. With some people, doing a firm and professional rebuttal will let them know that you won’t be pushed around and they will think twice before they start the process again. For others, it will challenge them to fight to the death and their criticisms will only escalate. You have to decide which kind of person you work for.
Finally, know that in the vast majority of cases, whether or not you do a written rebuttal will have little if any affect on whether or not you are entitled to a severance package. Unless there is just cause, you get severance. Unless the behaviour being criticized is truly egregious or verging on willful misconduct, just cause will not likely be even in the ballpark, whether or not there is a rebuttal from you.
Regardless of your situation, before you sit down to write that rebuttal letter, think clearly about what it is you are trying to achieve. If it is only catharsis, a way to make you feel better by venting, it might not be the right decision regardless of who is right and who is wrong.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, August 24, 2009
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809