Nobody likes receiving a negative performance review, but an incorrect or inappropriate response could make the situation worse. Although it is important to make a timely response, how to act and what to contest must be carefully thought through to be as effective as possible.
Decide Exactly What You Are Contesting
When you receive a bad review, there is temptation to take an issue with every negative statement. Remember that many supervisors will always include a number of negative elements; company policy may even dictate this. But trivial criticisms are really a bonus, because if that was the worse criticism that could be made, then there is nothing seriously bad. Concentrate on serious criticisms that you are able to clearly refute or justify.
Contesting a performance review is not just about the bad points. It may be that potential appraisals have been overlooked, so you should stick to the major points and concentrate on issues that can be demonstrated.
Use the Correct Procedure
Never make an informal response to a performance review, but find out what the correct procedure is and adhere to it. Institutional organizations usually have a highly detailed procedure; study it carefully and follow it through to the letter. Some companies may not have such highly detailed policy, but in any organization where performance reviews exist, there will be at minimum a conventional procedure for contesting them.
If you are unhappy about approaching your supervisor to find out the correct route to take, or if your direct supervisor was responsible for the bad report, then approach the human resources department for help. Never discuss the issue with your co-workers. If you want to ventilate your frustration or anger, then do it with somebody outside the organization.
Nobody is Perfect
To err is human and people who make themselves out to be perfect end up looking stupid. Be prepared to concede some mistakes. Remember that if you contest every issue in the review, you are insinuating that the reviewer is incompetent, which could lead to a head-to-head confrontation; you should be aiming to politely point out a couple of mistakes. Your objective is to strike on the most important issues and concede on the lesser ones.
The Review Meeting
If you are invited to participate in a meeting, then be prepared. If you have any documentation that could back up your point of view, then prepare an appropriate summary. Do not get drawn into long discussions on minor issues but concede and brush them aside. Concentrate on the major issues you have already identified and stick to your prepared response. If somebody makes an general affirmation, ask for clarification, details or examples. Above all, keep calm, but be persistent.
The Written Reply
If you have to produce a written response, then make sure it is written correctly and in the most effective manner. It's not just a case of correct spelling and grammar; you must write in an effective style. Make your points clearly and as ever stick to the big issues and ignore the minor ones. Don't use the letter to take issues with issues not directly related to your performance review or make suggestions.
If you are not an experienced or confident writer, then seek help from somebody outside the organization, preferably somebody with direct experience of performance review procedures.