What can workers do if they get a bad performance review?

When employees get an unfair performance appraisal, typically their only choices are to accept the blot on their work record or find a new job. But not if you're New York teacher Sheri Lederman.

According to the Washington Post, even her school superintendent says that "her record is flawless" and that "she is highly regarded as an educator." Her students also performed better than average on state tests. So why was she rated as "ineffective"?

That is the mystery Lederman, a fourth-grade public school teacher in Great Neck, New York, is hoping to uncover by suing the state officials who evaluated her. Educators in New York use a complicated computer model to figure out how students should perform, a common measure of teacher performance.

Lederman isn't alone in wondering why her official appraisal doesn't reflect her day to day reality. A recent survey shows that 54 percent of employees think their performance appraisals are inaccurate. This survey wasn't limited to teachers, but rather cut across all fields. That suggests many employees are blindsided by the feedback they receive.

This can be a huge morale killer. Employees think they are doing great. They are meeting deadlines, keeping clients happy, even reaching financial targets, and then suddenly the rug is pulled out from under their feet. "You're not meeting expectations" is the standard line. But how can a person meet expectations if those expectations are never clear or never communicated?

When an employee unexpectedly receives a bad evaluation, it's not likely to motivate them to work harder the next time. After all, what guarantee is there that hard work in 2015 will be evaluated fairly if hard work in 2014 was not?

And so Lederman is suing, saying that the method used to evaluate and grade teachers is opaque and unfair.

Can you sue your employer for a bad appraisal? Maybe, but most likely you'd need to prove not only that your evaluation was "unfair," but also that it somehow violated either law or company policy. (Companies are generally bound by their own handbooks, but can change their handbooks as they wish.) For instance, if you were rated lower than your co-workers of a different race and there was no substantial difference between your performance and theirs, a lawsuit could possibly result in legal relief.

Likewise, if a company policy states that salespeople that exceed their targets be rated as top performers, making them eligible for a certain bonus, and you meet those targets and don't receive the bonus, then that might be winnable in court. But if your complaint is that your boss rated you a "3" and your co-worker a "4" because he likes your co-workers better, engaging the services of lawyer may not be worth it.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo announced in September that the methods for evaluating teachers need to be re-evaluated because too many teachers are being rated as effective or highly effective. Many companies have the same philosophy and require a certain percentage of people to be rated as not meeting expectations. This is usually around 5 percent, while roughly 6 percent of New York teachers are classified as ineffective.