Performance reviews are the fruitcake of management practices—no one actually likes them, yet every year, here they are again. But unlike a shiny, colorful fruitcake, you can’t politely decline or quietly pass it on to some other sucker—you need to survive, and ideally ace, your annual review if you want to further your career.
We recently wrote about the management side of this ritual (see “Performance Reviews Made Easy”) with advice for tailoring the process to make it more useful for everyone. As an employee, however, or as a middle manager who also gets reviewed by your boss, what’s the best way to nail your own performance review?
The FruitGuys spoke with Mickey Swortzel, the co-founder and operations director of New Eagle Consulting, a Michigan-based electromechanical equipment consultancy. She’s been on both sides of the table, and advocates for an open, honest, collaborative approach. “I don’t think [performance reviews] are bad. I think they’re good, or should be. But a year is too long” to go between reviews, she believes. Her company has gone to quarterly “touch base” reviews. However, most sizable employers continue to use the standard—a formal annual performance review.
So as the person being reviewed, how should you prepare for this opportunity?
Most likely, you’ll get some kind of reminder about your annual performance review from your boss a couple of weeks before it’s scheduled and then fret.
In your heart, though, you know what you should be doing—keeping notes all year on your successes (and, more cautiously, on your areas for growth) in preparation for the job review you know is coming.
Create a monthly ritual of reviewing your job description and noting all of your major job duties. Then look at your performance review for the previous year and flag any areas for improvement and goals that were set. With those in mind, make a note about each of your successes as you go along, adding documentation in the form of emails of praise, sales statistics, certificates and classes you completed, etc.
Before Your Performance Review
When the date rolls around and you get that aforementioned email from your boss reminding you of your upcoming performance review, what do you do? It’s simple: shape the notes you’ve kept into a memo for your supervisor that reminds them (and yourself!) of how much you’ve accomplished over the year.
Start with any goals for success, learning, or growth; detail how you’ve met and surpassed them. Then list your major achievements, attaching a few well-chosen emails of praise or statistics to document them.
Write a draft of the job review you’d like to receive (be positive, but not over the top), and send it to your boss in advance. Add a cover note that says something like “Looking forward to our performance review on Thursday. Here are some notes I’ve kept on the past year, in case they’re helpful.”
Your diligent and carefully organized memo also sends the message that you have your act together and are probably doing something useful with your time.
Most important, take some time during the run-up to your review to envision your goals for the next year—your review should be about your future as well as your past.
During the Review Meeting
When you actually sit down, be as conversational as possible in order to project confidence and break any tension. A good manager will also be looking for your input on how things are going in the office otherwise.
If your boss brings up ways for you to improve—and they should, since it’s their job to get more out of you—resist the natural urge to get defensive. There is literally no scenario in which that helps.
Thank your manager for their honesty and indicate that you’re always interested in improving and becoming a better employee. Take notes, which helps you remember exactly what was said and shows you’re taking it seriously. (If things turn nasty, or if your boss says something offensive, these notes may also help you protect yourself later.)
If Things Go Badly
Performance reviews have a bad reputation for a reason. One practical reason they survive is that many corporate lawyers think they’re necessary to defend against lawsuits for unlawful termination. It’s not clear how true that is any longer, but you should approach your review knowing this.
If your supervisor no longer wants to work with you, you may first find this out when your performance reviews suddenly become harshly critical, often after years of praise. You could be handed a Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) and asked to sign it. This is a formal document saying that you’re performing below standards and need to make changes.
In theory, this is a well-intentioned strategy to solve a problem, but in practice it usually means that your employer is building a paper trail to justify firing you. Our experts agree that if you receive one, you should start looking for another job immediately. As Swortzel delicately puts it, “a Performance Improvement Plan indicates you should find ‘external opportunities.’”
After Your Review
When it’s all done, you can breathe a sigh of relief and forget all about it for another year, right? Not so fast. Instead, the final performance review memo you receive from your manager is your signal to start collecting information again for next year’s review. Take to heart any constructive criticism, and use the opportunity to focus on your goals for growth and improvement.
Despite all the hassles involved, job performance reviews can be a helpful annual reminder to keep developing and improving your skills and workplace relationships.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association and about football for Philly.com, BleedingGreenNation.com, IgglesBlitz, and FishDuck.com. His work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.