like a letter of reference, for me to read, focusing on my faults
March 29, 2011 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Manager-filter: how to ask for an unsealed, mostly critical, written review for my own reading? I'm starting to leave my current (part-time, student) job. One thing I'd like to get before I go is my boss's honest opinion of everything I did right and (especially) everything I did wrong or could do better. This is not meant to be a letter of reference; I want permission to read it and I want him to focus on how I could improve. How do I ask for this?

By the way, my departure is voluntary and with my boss's permission; we have sort of a tradition of technical staff gradually turning into consultants with fewer and fewer duties before they leave for good. So I don't need to conceal from him that I'm leaving.

Slightly complicating matters is that we have no current practice of periodic reviews. The boss praises you during the staff meetings when you do well and takes you aside for some verbal chastisement when you screw up. All of this is very focused on the present situation, although I can't imagine he's not keeping track in some private, perhaps informal way.
posted by d. z. wang to Work & Money (16 answers total)
I can't imagine he's not keeping track in some private, perhaps informal way

I really, really can. Most people aren't thinking as much about you as you may suppose, and if they're keeping track of student employees' performance systematically, they're truly unusual.

Although it's fine to ask him ("Hey, I sincerely appreciate constructive criticism, and I'd be very grateful if you could take the time to write up some ways I might improve in the future--something I can refer to down the line too to judge whether I did improve"), it's not at all unlikely he'll have to work a bit to come up with a list and may or may not be expressive enough to do it well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2011

Certainly your boss has an opinion of you - but wanting something in writing is, frankly, strange. The best (and possibly only) way to get a no-holds-barred, I-promise-not-to-mind assessment of performance is through a casual, no stakes / no evidence, personal conversation.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:21 PM on March 29, 2011

I don't absorb information very well by listening, so I appreciate the opportunity to look back over it a few times. Plus, in this particular case, I might very well get too defensive for him to speak honestly.

Maybe I could offer to take a single hard copy, read it in his office, and give it back? Or else offer him documentation that I asked for it in the first place? I guess I just don't understand why he might be afraid to put into writing something he's willing to say to me in person.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:29 PM on March 29, 2011

Generally speaking, "put it in writing" sets off legal concern bells, and in the context of your leaving employment, those bells will be loud! More generally, for most people (maybe not you or me or the typical mefite) writing is ONEROUS. It's weird because you're possibly "tricking" them, and definitely giving them "homework" when what you really want is a favor. If you want honest feedback, you can seek that - but you may not get it, and your defensiveness is within your control.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:40 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

This kind of thing is normally done in an exit interview, not in writing. Writing stuff down always takes more time and thought than just discussing it in person, plus it's a lot more likely to be read the wrong way. I think your best bet it to set up an exit interview and take copious notes (which his permission) to give you something to read over again later. As for getting defensive, that's something you need to work on fixing anyway and is definitely your problem rather than your boss's, so expecting him to do extra work because of it won't really fly.
posted by shelleycat at 10:43 PM on March 29, 2011

Since you have trouble with absorbing information through listening, maybe politely ask if he can give you some feedback while you take notes?

I wouldn't try to covertly record anything, that would get super awkward if he caught on and might not be legal, anyway.

Finally, as I'm sure you're acutely aware, learning from listening is extremely important when you get into the world of meetings, and you may even be expected to take minutes at some point. I'm not great at focusing in lectures and long meetings, but listening yo recorded lectures and taking notes has helped me a lot.
posted by charmcityblues at 12:47 AM on March 30, 2011

One of the biggest differences between the world of academia and the world of work is that you don't get graded on exit. Your manager is not your teacher, and unless you have some pre-agreed mentor-type arrangement you can't expect close analysis and feedback beyond the cursory stuff you describe above. Being an adult is difficult precisely because no-one is telling you how to do it right.

Self-evaluation, however is a great skill to learn. Why not write up a one page list of things that you think you did well, plus times in which you feel you may have underperformed, and a quick summary of skills you think you might be able to develop. Ask your boss for an exit interview using the list as a discussion point. Note down comments, and where your views differ don't get defensive. Whatever the outcome just say 'That's really interesting. many thanks for your perspective, this will really help me in [next job]' or somesuch as you leave.

If you can do this with grace your boss will likely be very impressed and you'll have a take-away of specific feedback for future reference.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:07 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Let's make a more casual request. It sounds like you're friends on a personal as well as professional level. Go grab a beer after work, somewhere quiet without 100 decibel music. Tell them straight up what you're looking to find out, totally off the record, and so on. His level of frankness will go up as the consequence for telling you comes down.

This whole writing thing strikes as something you might save and look back at 10 years down the road. Sorry, but if I'm your boss, that's energy better spent elsewhere.
posted by chrisinseoul at 2:11 AM on March 30, 2011

It is a lot of work to do written reviews, as anyone who has worked in an environment where this is done can tell you. Managers aren't necessarily good at evaluating employees, some employees take the reviews very badly, and you are writing it for some future reader who won't be able to ask for clarifications. In my current work environment, we do this exercise (written performance reviews) twice a year, but only for employees -- it isn't judged to be worth the effort for contractors or students/interns. Like the other commenters, I think it is unlikely you are going to get anything in writing.

I like freya_lamb's idea -- that you write up your self-eval and ask your boss to comment. Either way, to get the most out of your boss, I would suggest explaining to him what you are looking for a few days or a week in advance of the actual "review", to give him a chance to marshal his thoughts. It will be easier for him to deliver the negative if you also ask for positive feedback at the same time (e.g. "tell me three things I'm doing well, three things I can improve"). You mentioned positive feedback in your question, but make it crystal clear to your boss when you ask for the review. You might think about framing it in terms of things you can actually change and that are not situational to the current work environment. Real examples from the last round I did: one employee needs to work on his public speaking skills. This is very fixable. I've got another employee who has a very type A personality in an environment that is anything but. It isn't as clear if he can change that or whether he even should - that is a much more nuanced conversation.

Having been on the receiving end of a number of these things as well as some full "360" reviews, the feedback is never as comprehensive as you would hope for. Don't expect a laundry list of things, your boss will likely have one or two things that he thinks you could do better on.
posted by kovacs at 4:12 AM on March 30, 2011

Agreed that a personal conversation would work so much better here, because it takes less time for your manager to prepare and you can ask for questions or clarifications on the spot. Maybe over lunch? Leaving school and entering full-time work, I was honestly surprised how infrequently my performance was discussed, so long as I was completing all assigned tasking. I have learned three things: 1) Most managers view themselves as individual contributors who just happen to have direct reports. 2) In general, people spend far less time thinking about you than you think they do. 3) Performance reviews (when they do occur) are hugely, staggeringly subjective.
posted by mochapickle at 5:18 AM on March 30, 2011

Maybe I could offer to take a single hard copy, read it in his office, and give it back?

You are presuming here that either your boss already has a written document of your strengths and faults or that he will have the time or inclination to write all of this down for you. You're leaving. He has no incentive to spend a moment on this when he probably has other, more important things to do (like hiring someone to replace you).

I know that you said you don't do as well listening vs. reading, but really, make the effort if this is so important for you. Take casual notes during or hurry up and write down as much as you can afterwards. Nthing the suggestions above that a more personal, laid-back chat will yield you much better results.

Why? Because a written 'official' statement is much more likely to contain sanitized statements like 'you are a good worker with a good work ethic'. Maybe if you are extremely lucky you'll get something like "you are really enthusiastic but sometimes miss the little details of a project". If you are looking for self-improvement, you will want the more honest truth which will not be written down in a letter from your boss. It will be obtained during a private, personal conversation, if you can get him to admit anything at all.
posted by amicamentis at 5:40 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

100 percent agree with amicamentis. Your best bet is probably to ask for advice on improvements, and then jot down some notes during or right after the meeting.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:55 AM on March 30, 2011

And your comment that you might become defensive... really? Why in the world would a boss want to A. write up a big deal and then B. present it to someone who will get angry and argue about it, especially someone who is leaving? And why would you ask for something like that if you are going to get defensive about it?

My vote is for the self evaluation and then ask your boss for a meeting to go over it (which you sent him a few days in advance). During which time you take notes and ask if he agrees/disagrees/has any additional items that you can work on. And don't get defensive AT ALL. Frame this as your own desire to improve, and thank him for the insight.
posted by CathyG at 6:59 AM on March 30, 2011

It would be a fair amount of work for him to do this. Ask for a meeting to review your performance, provide a list of questions beforehand, and take notes. I'd be pretty impressed with somebody who did this.
posted by Mom at 8:04 AM on March 30, 2011

This is the sort of critique you get when you hire someone or when you get them very drunk. Is your relationship close enough that you can buy him five or six beers and then ask?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 4:31 PM on March 30, 2011

At a certain point in life you will have to start doing your own self-evaluation instead of relying on someone else. Maybe now is a good time.
posted by ovvl at 4:40 PM on March 30, 2011

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