Next to recruitment there is probably no area of human resources that is as horribly mismanaged as performance management. If you were to ask a hundred managers or supervisors what aspect of their job they disliked the most I would venture to suggest that a sizable majority would cite “conducting performance reviews” as one of their most odious tasks. Employees invariably dread them, managers and supervisors hate doing them, and human resources dislikes administering the whole process. While some companies are now moving away from the annual performance review cycle the fact remains that for the majority of organizations the process will remain intact for several years to come.
That being said, what can an employee do in order to achieve a more positive outcome? How can they avoid being the target of myopic managers who view the performance review cycle as an opportunity to either assert control or nit-pick minor issues?
Rule #1: Owning It
The old axiom “He who controls the process controls the outcome” has more than a grain of truth in it. Simply, if you want to affect the outcome you need to control how it is processed.
A good place for employees to start is with a good tracking tool to carefully identify each and every accomplishment, initiative and undertaking that occurs throughout the year. Performance management is too important to entrust entirely to managers and supervisors. A detailed accounting of the work accomplished through the course of a year is very hard to counteract, especially if it is reinforced with metrics and quantifiable data. If you are a Customer Service Rep, and your manager indicates you haven’t handled your share of incoming calls, a log detailing the exact number of calls taken each day, is pretty hard to refute. If that list is further sub-divided by the type of call and the outcome that is a very conclusive summary.
Relying on your memory or your supervisor to keep track important milestones is both short-sighted and naïve. Many supervisors, sadly, are guilty of the recency effect. Invariably, they remember only things that occurred just prior to the performance review, and forget key accomplishments that occurred earlier in the year.
Rule #2: Metrics Matter
Business runs on numbers. The same is true of performance management.
Telling your supervisor that you have a heavy workload, and that you handled “a lot of cases” each month isn’t nearly as impactful as saying “On average I handled 38 files throughout 2021, of which 97% of the problems or issues were successfully resolved within 24 hours”.
If you don’t know what kind of metrics to focus on ask around. Do some research on Google. Identify metrics that are important and reflect the contribution you make. Most important, and this links back to Rule #1, make sure you have the evidence to justify the metrics you use.
Rule #3: Don’t Be Rushed
Most organizations have a common performance review date. Sometimes it will be annually, sometimes twice a year, and sometimes quarterly. Make sure you have your documentation prepared and ready to present well in advance of your performance review.
Related to this is the importance of not being “put on the spot”. If your supervisor comes to you and advises that a performance review meeting will be happening that same day see if you can postpone it till you have an opportunity to gather your materials. Don’t be rushed into impromptu discussions. If your manager is prepared and you aren’t there is an inherent knowledge and power imbalance.
Rule #4: Know the Lay of the Land
Too often, performance reviews are a competing game of wits between a supervisor and an employee. Before going into a performance review ensure you understand the parameters. Learn the different kind of performance ratings, gradations and levels. When you are evaluated ask how your supervisor arrived at that evaluation. Where necessary, be prepared to challenge it.
Rule #5: Don’t Be Held Accountable for That which is Beyond your Control
In order to be held accountable for an undertaking a number of preconditions must exist. As an employee:
- You need to understand what exactly you are accountable for;
- You need to be trained in an activity in order to be fully accountable for its successful completion;
- Performance expectations and deliverables need to be clearly articulated;
- You may need to have time to “get up to speed” in order to become fully competent in the performance of a duty.
If any of the preceding are missing then it is both fallacious and dishonest to hold an employee accountable. If things are missing then this is the time to speak out and voice your concerns and objections.
Rule #6: One Bad Review Doesn’t Ruin the Rating
Many organizations are now characterized by matrix management. It is especially common in project management and information technology firms. It is not uncommon to have multiple individuals provide input into an employee’s performance review.
It is entirely possible that not all contributors providing feedback on an employee’s performance will share the same observations or assessments. Just because one supervisor has a disapproving view does not devalue an employee’s performance review. Feedback on performance needs to be viewed in context, and it also may require further investigation to ascertain the reasons behind the assessment. Personal bias, a poorly trained rater, and discrimination, are but some of the many reasons which may result in a negative assessment.
Knowing this is important, and being prepared to challenge a rating on this basis may be warranted.
Rule #7: Get a Second Opinion Before You Actually Need It
If you have had a difficult relationship with your boss, and you are dubious about what your rating might be, ask for feedback from another trusted source ahead of time.
Say you have metrics that strongly support your contribution throughout the year. You think you’ve done a great job, but aren’t certain. Your supervisor has proven to be quixotic and challenging in the past. You aren’t certain your review will be favourable. If there is someone in authority in the organization that you know and trust, and who has seen your work, you may want to ask them for a second opinion on your performance.
Rule #8: Know What You Want…and Deserve!
Many annual performance review discussions come with an expectation that employees’ personal and professional development will be an adjunct to the discussion. Going in, you cannot rely on your employer to manage your development. It is important to have clear goals in mind about what additional training you feel you want and need, as well as what other roles in the organization you may aspire to.
Don’t assume your supervisor knows, let alone cares. It continually astonishes me how little many supervisors know about their staff. If you doubt this, ask you supervisor these five questions which will provide an interesting evaluation of their awareness:
- What post-secondary institution did you graduate from, and what was your academic major?
- Where did you work prior to joining your current employer? What was your role?
- What is your favourite pastime or leisure activity?
- What is your favourite colour?
- Where was the last place you went on vacation?
- What is the first name of your spouse? Your children?
A key part of knowing your staff is listening. If your supervisor can’t answer the above questions they either don’t listen, don’t care, or most disturbingly, a bit of both. And if they don’t care to know about your past and present, what makes you think they’ll give a damn about your future?
A Final Thought…
In case you haven’t guessed I am not a big fan of annual performance reviews. I think the entire process is structurally flawed and rife with favoritism and lack of proper training for both supervisors and employees. The pressure placed on employees during performance review time can be tedious, and too often supervisors lack the awareness or coaching skills to make informed, reasoned and constructive comments.
If I had my way we would replace the annual performance reviews with monthly touchpoints, and focus less on metrics and more on personal support and skill development. Until that day comes though employees need to step up and take personal responsibility for managing their own success, and that especially includes performance reviews.