Ask Annie

Can you correct a bad performance review?

December 15, 2011: 11:18 AM ET

Probably, but it's vitally important to learn how to manage your boss all year round so your next evaluation will be better. Here's how.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: It's annual performance-evaluation time again, and my coworkers and I are, as usual, taking a grin-and-bear-it approach. We've gotten used to just getting it over with, as my out-of-touch boss does his best to come up with the pros and cons of our performance over the past 12 months. We end each year grumbling about the things our boss has gotten wrong, or things we've accomplished that he is just unaware of, but, so far, none of us has attempted any rebuttal. Are there any practical ways to correct inaccurate performance reviews, or should we just keep muddling along? I'm wondering if saying nothing is undercutting my chances for raises and promotions. Your thoughts? — Underappreciated

Dear Underappreciated: Whoa. "'Grin and bear it' is absolutely the worst possible way to handle this situation," says John Hoover. "Why are you abdicating such an essential part of your career to someone else, especially since you already know your boss is clueless?"

Hoover, who leads the executive coaching practice at Manhattan-based consulting firm Partners in Human Resources International, counsels managers at IBM (IBM), Hilton Hotels, Verizon (VZ), Xerox (XRX), and many other big companies. He also wrote an insightful book called How to Work for an Idiot: Survive and Thrive Without Killing Your Boss.

What Hoover calls "the boring HR answer" to your question is that you can indeed challenge an inaccurate or incomplete performance review. "You can go through the HR department and ask to be re-evaluated, pointing out things that were missed so they can be recorded in your personnel file," he says.

Politically, however, that route is risky, since it's likely to embarrass your boss by making him look, well, out of touch with what you're doing. "A better approach is to go to your boss directly with a list of the things he has overlooked, and ask him to add them to your written review," says Hoover. If you don't, your suspicion that you're undercutting your own chances for advancement is probably spot on.

Now, let's talk about how to prevent this debacle in the future. "You should be scripting your own performance evaluation 52 weeks a year," says Hoover. "As coaches, we always tell bosses to communicate with everyone under them at least once a week -- even if only very briefly -- to set goals and get progress reports, rather than blind-siding people once a year, as your boss seems to be doing.

"But if that is not happening, you need to make it happen. Engage your boss in a conversation every week about what you're working on and how it's going, and follow up with a brief email summing up what was said," Hoover advises. "Then, as annual evaluation time approaches, write up a succinct account of your accomplishments for the year and email it to him."

He adds, "Bosses appreciate this, because it saves them the work of trying to reconstruct the whole year from memory" -- a task your boss apparently hasn't got the time or inclination for. At some companies, Hoover notes, the HR department asks employees to write self-evaluations summing up the year's activities and achievements, which serve as handy "cheat sheets" for bosses whose powers of recall are less than total.

Speaking of which, Hoover suggests a few other things to bear in mind: "Even when your boss drops the ball, always be polite and keep your sense of humor, because bosses are only human, after all, and they're often way overworked these days. Not only that, but unless you have a genuinely sadistic boss" -- one of 10 distinct types identified in his book -- "performance evaluations are the most unpleasant task he or she faces. It's hard to deliver bad news or criticism. Your boss would probably rather clean the restrooms. So have some empathy."

Remember, too, that "besides your spouse or significant other and your kids, if you have any, your rapport with your boss is the most important relationship in your life," Hoover says. "It determines your job satisfaction, the future of your career, your income, your quality of life. The strange thing is, nobody hesitates to recommend that people learn to communicate better with their spouse or their children, but if you make the same suggestion about a boss, it's scorned as 'kissing up.'"

Big mistake, according to Hoover: As with any relationship, chemistry counts, and "you create that chemistry by getting the phrase 'kissing up' out of your vocabulary and making it a point to communicate in your boss's language, not your own."

That may sound like a lot of work, but Hoover says it will pay off: "Great leaders do their homework. They remember people's kids' names. They listen to you as if you were the only person in the room. If you want recognition, and ultimately influence, this is how you get it and keep it." Enough said.

On another topic entirely: For a future article, I'm interested in hearing from anyone who has taken advantage of a government-funded job retraining program (state or federal). How did it work out for you? Did the training enable you to get hired despite having no on-the-job experience in your chosen field, or was training alone insufficient to lead to a new job? Please email me at anne.fisher@turner.com.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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