When you receive a low rating on your performance appraisal with no explanation

Dear Joan:

Two years ago I made a major career change and my boss still thinks I am not doing a good job. My last evaluation garnered only the lowest percentage of a raise and an overall rating of “fair.”

Instead of getting measurable advice on how to improve, I am told I just need to do or be “better”.  I have been recognized as employee of the month in my department three times in the last 20 months for my creative ideas and I continually have new tasks and responsibilities added to my job because of my background and expertise.


 How do you suggest I approach my boss about this issue?



Working for your boss must be a little like playing golf while blindfolded. You don’t know how to adjust your swing or even which way to aim. I agree; it’s time for a conversation with him/her.


Before you meet, collect your thoughts on a piece of paper, so you are prepared and clear headed. For example, list the skills and abilities that are required for this new career. For each, write down specific examples where you think you have demonstrated proficiency and where you still need work. You might want to rate each skill: A is mastery, B is good and C is fair. (During your conversation, you can present examples and see how he would rate them and why.)


Write down all the tasks and responsibilities you performed in your job two years ago, and then list the new tasks you have been given over the past two years. As you examine the new tasks and responsibilities, what trends appear? What skills are you developing that have enabled you to expand your responsibilities? This will be further evidence of your growing contribution.


Write down the reasons for the three employee-of-the-month awards.  How do these creative ideas demonstrate your growing expertise and understanding of your responsibilities? I’m curious about how you were nominated for your awards. If your manager was the nominator, or at least approved the award, he has to believe that you are providing value. If this is the case, it will be interesting to hear his justification.


When you bring up your awards, will your manager point out that good ideas are nice but you aren’t performing your core responsibilities well? If so, be ready with examples to illustrate your point of view.


Next, consider his skills as a manager. Is he the type who rates everyone low, just because he thinks they have to walk on water in order to get a significant raise? Also consider the company evaluation system. For example, does the company use a “forced ranking” of employees to make managers put everyone on a bell curve? (If you are the newest and least experienced employee, he may feel compelled to put you on the lower end of the curve.)


When you have all of your thoughts on paper you are ready to ask for a meeting. He will want to know what the meeting is about, so tell him you want to have a development discussion about how to improve in your job.


When the meeting begins, start with, “Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. I would like to get your input on how I can improve my performance. I’d like to develop a plan when we’re done and show it to you and get your agreement.  Then over the next year, perhaps we can touch base a few times and you can tell me how I’m doing.” This is a proactive approach and it doesn’t make reference to his “fair” rating—which could put him on the defensive.


During the meeting, let him know that you have given your performance a lot of thought. Share your list of skills and ask him how he would evaluate each. If he isn’t the communicative type, offer your A, B, C rating scale and see how he rates each.  Ask for examples and then share your examples. Don’t get into a fight over whether he sees a skill as a B or a C. Rather, get as many examples from him as you can. At this stage, it’s more important to win the battle than the war.


Ask him about the award criteria and nomination process and how those awards fit in with your overall performance.  In addition, ask how your expanding list of responsibilities fits with his view of your overall performance.


The purpose of this discussion is to get his real feelings and perceptions on the table—not to lobby for a higher rating or try to justify why you think his past rating was too low. This will be counterproductive in the long run.  If you find that you disagree profoundly with his perceptions, at least you know what you are dealing with. You can then decide to either change his perceptions through your own behavior, or leave.


Your goal is to figure out what his expectations are, as well as to enlist his help in coaching you over the coming year. Once you understand what he categorizes as “excellent,” you will be in a better position to deliver those results. And if he buys in and starts coaching you, he will have a vested interest in seeing you reach that goal.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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