Acing Your Annual Performance Review

The process can be about the most trying time of year for everyone. Here are five ways to lessen the angst

By Liz Ryan

Perhaps the most dreaded of all management practices is the annual performance review. Whenever the subject comes up, out come the groans. Sure, everyone wants the feedback, but the thought of filling out all those forms or enduring endless meetings is something no one relishes.

And to top it off, human-resource departments are continually tweaking process, often trading in the old system for a new one -- at great costs of money and time -- once every few years. Then you change jobs, and there's a whole new system to learn.

No one is ever sure as to what the benefits to the company are, but everyone sure takes these reviews seriously!


  Indeed, only the annual budgeting process comes even close to having the same effect on people. Visit a company that's set up all its annual reviews on the same date -- many do this since it allows them to coordinate budgeting and setting goals -- and you'll see lots of closed doors and frantic people. A companywide blood-pressure index would show a huge spike, as managers try to remember Jennifer's accomplishments, Philip's need for improvement, Javier's highest-impact deliverables, and what the heck Anastasia has been doing all year, anyway.

In a later column, I'll tell you how to ease the pain of review-writing. This one focuses on how to prepare for your own review -- the one chance a year you get to put your best foot forward.

Here are five ways. Even if your review isn't due until, say, January, you can start getting ready -- thus easing your burden as the big day approaches.

Know the system. To get the most from the experience and present yourself in the best light, make sure you understand how your company handles reviews, beginning with the form (or two dozen) that has to be filled out. Some companies ask employees to complete a self-review form, sometimes online. Others leave the writing to the boss and let employees have their say in a face-to-face meeting.

If your company's process doesn't call for a face-to-face review, quit -- and I'm only half joking. Leaving a document on an employee's desk in place of a live meeting is disgraceful. The only worse way of giving feedback is leaving a voice mail that goes something like: "Congratulations, Alice! Of the 45 people in the group, you were rated No. 18. Good going!" (And by the way, that's a true story.)

Keep track during the year. Most performance-review systems operate on a yearly calendar. Keep track of your work throughout, so that you can cite your accomplishments. Keep a log, or review your e-mail regularly to refresh your memory on the projects, initiatives, and challenges you've managed.

Focus on your out-of-the-ordinary contributions. Many employees believe that they'll get a good review and a hefty raise if they simply list everything they did during the year. Guess what? Most of that stuff is what you're already paid to do.

A salary increase is a reward for exceptional performance. So when you list your accomplishments, focus on the net value to the business. Did you increase the speed of the adoption rate on a new product through innovative use of direct mail? Did you reduce turnover in the logistics department as a result of your much-lauded employee-feedback system?

Whatever you did, make a case for your beyond-the-call-of-duty contributions. Doing the job for yet another year is just table stakes, not justification for an above-average review or pay increase.

If you have a compensation goal, announce it. When a company has a widely known annual pay increase schedule (say, 3% for average performance and 4.5% for excellent performance) and you keep your mouth shut in the days leading up to the review, your manager will assume that you're O.K. with that. Then if you react indignantly after receiving a good review from your manager and a 4.5% pay increase, you are the one in error. If you expect or want more than the standard, you have to make that clear -- in advance.

If your company's review process doesn't give you a chance to provide input on your pay, at least use it to let your boss know that, based on your incredible results this year or your highly marketable skills or other virtues, you're looking for 8%, 10%, or whatever it is. This doesn't mean that you'll automatically get it. But asking for more may start a discussion that eventually will get you there.

Be prepared -- and let your boss know that. Sometimes, the company's performance-review system includes a template or guide that makes it easy to organize your performance-review case. Sometimes, however, you're on your own.

If that's the situation, organize your notes, files, and correspondence and create a short (one- or two-page) document that lays out your view of:

a) Your work over the past year, emphasizing your unusual contributions

b) Your goals for the new year

c) Your needs, that is, the tools, training, and access to people that will help you reach your goals

d) Your take on your own strengths and areas for improvement

e) Any feedback for your boss -- on communication processes, scheduling, whatever. This works best, of course, with a boss who is receptive to suggestions.

Once you're prepared, let your boss know what you're bringing to the meeting, perhaps by sending it on ahead via e-mail. Whatever you do, don't just dump a pile of paper on him. Most supervisors like having the information in advance, if only so they can go through it one-on-one with you. Most important, be upbeat and professional: A self-review is not a rant. Concentrate on the future, not the past.

There's an old saying that a good manager is one who, in an annual review of an employee, doesn't say anything for the first time. In other words, your boss should have conveyed to you most important feedback in real time, throughout the year.

The same holds true in reverse. The more you keep your manager in the loop with regard to your progress, needs, concerns, observations, and plans, the more in sync you'll be at that big annual review. Wouldn't it be nice to see eye-to-eye there, and then retire to a relaxed lunch?

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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