Coping with performance review issues
November 14, 2018 6:13 PM   Subscribe

My boss wanted to give me the maximum. Upper management basically wouldn't allow it, so the compromise is "satisfactory." I'm a high performer and I'm taking this harder than I should.

High ratings are tied to bonuses and the possibility of raises, promotional consideration, etc. Also, everyone in my department rates me as outstanding. Apparently the upper management is known for being political and stingy about advancement opportunities for my discipline.

This is the highest paying gig you can get for my field, so getting a different job doesn't make sense. I like my team and the work itself. I like my boss a lot. I have flexibility and autonomy at work as well as some creative leeway despite being new. Leaving isn't the answer.

But it's deeply concerning that I can prove myself to my actual rater, and have it not matter. In fact, the person that signs the appraisal (upper management) implied that it's possible to be there for 3 years before you can achieve outstanding rather than satisfactory. Upper management told me it is rare to get as many outstanding ratings as I did, but everyone pushed me to sell myself, telling me I was way beyond what they expect for a new hire, and it got me nowhere. I'm angry, disappointed and disillusioned.

My company claims to want the best and the brightest, the high performers, and yet they aren't rewarding performance.

There's three different lines of management, and apparently mine is the one of all three that tends to be stingy with bonuses, high ratings, etc. I cannot switch management lines without many years of cross training.

So what can I do here? I proved myself, and learned that it didn't matter. Upper management is off site, so I have few opportunities to network with them, and it sounds like they want to hold the keys to the kingdom. (example: for one of the categories, you had to go above and beyond in a specific way that your work benefits others also. When upper management was going over it with me, I pointed out how I had actually done this already, but they only want to count it if it falls within their limited focus. And that means the category can only be affected by projects that they decide to assign.)

I am not the kind of person that can just phone it in. I want to understand how it is possible that the rater who sees your work every day can be overruled by an ivory tower person that has no idea. And how in the world they expect to retain good workers that way.

I do understand when you are new to a job (I've been there less than a year), they want to be sure you will consistently perform. But if I don't see my efforts recognized in my second evaluation then I would have to transfer which I don't want to do because the team I am with is wonderful. I suspect if that happens to me again, my team won't question my decision to leave, because those I've told were upset on my behalf.

I'm not used to working in a large org. How do I cope with these power dynamics? It's so demoralizing.
posted by crunchy potato to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you casually start looking for other job offers, you may be able to negotiate a salary increase from your current management in order to keep you. Although, you may find that upper management doesn't see your value at all, so be careful with this approach.

Otherwise, is there a way to get to know your upper management better? This is something you might be able to work with your direct manager with, to get more face-to-face time with higher-ups.
posted by devrim at 7:23 PM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

It may come as a shock but the real world is nothing like a meritocracy. (source: working in a global multinational for years). If it was, you wouldn't have entire generations of undoubtedly brilliant minds starving and dying in childhood in Africa.

Corporations lean towards either or two extremes -

Corporations with command and control tendencies will promote and rate only vaguely guided by performance but mostly by "the greater good". Let's say a promotion possibility opens up unexpectedly due to a sudden resignation. It's not as straightforward as picking the top performer and promoting them to the role. Let's say their objectively highest performer is currently on a project that is pretty important and would cause disruption if they left. Their current plan was that this person may get promoted in a year's time into another position that management are planning to make vacant or create. It is likely they will first promote a lesser rated person first into the unexpected position to cause the least disruption to the business. In orgs like this, managers several layers up can interfere with ratings and promotions and transfers. The benefit of this is that this in theory protects the interests of all work groups: it works by consensus, where all layers of management must compromise and agree on ratings and transfers. The downside is the bureaucracy moves slowly, and the actions of management are not transparent at all to the employees and may not seem to make logical sense.

On the other extreme you have the total free market - orgs where managers have ultimate discretion over promotions and ratings, with zero interference allowed from upper management. Any manager can issue ratings and promotions as they wish with no oversight. Downside is the risk of individual bias, poor and selfish decisions by one manager impacting the larger org without oversight or input by pulling employees off other projects, and just luck: maybe you work for a manager who is generous with ratings and promotions, or happens to be the same race / gender as you are. Benefit is that the system is very transparent and decisions get made very quickly and people know exactly who to blame for dodgy decisions.

In reality most organizations are a mix of the two, with some of the disadvantages and some of the advantages. Management are acutely aware that unhappy staff leave, and they never like to see staff who put in a good performance go unrewarded, if only for selfish reasons. (guess who bears the burden of hiring and training and then dealing with the reduced performance of their team while they on-board a new member, it's the managers of that function).

You're playing their game. Yes the rules are unfair from your perspective but they were written long before you got there. It's no different to the company itself operating under unfair commercial conditions (unfair trade rules, predatory competitors, etc)

If it's anything like the teams I've worked in, they will keep this in mind and bias any future decisions where they can try compensate you for it. If someone we think deserving misses out on a promotion to a rival we might send them to an expenses paid with time off leadership training program and tweak their work duties to make sure they still know we have confidence in them. Also keep in mind that your response to this situation will also heavily factor into their perception of you: being unhappy or upset with what amounts to a fairly normal and unavoidable injustice at work could get you branded as having low emotional resilience and then marked as unsuitable for management. Reality is nothing goes your way all the time, and we see many high performers who are seemingly only concerned about their own performance and their own advancement - imagine whether those qualities are those you want to see in your own boss and your own leaders.
posted by xdvesper at 7:38 PM on November 14, 2018 [34 favorites]

What you're describing isn't rare. I work at a place that is similarly stingy with giving "Exceeds Expectations" ratings. It does seem to favor mere adequacy over all else on a formal level. So you'll need to weigh your priorities to determine if this is enough to ruin what sounds like an otherwise good job, and if this is enough to ruin your work ethic. It doesn't have to.

You said you really enjoy your job otherwise and you're already treated well and paid well. I personally think that's way more valuable than getting the highest possible mark on a performance review. You're still very new to the company. Basically everyone hates performance reviews. They're one of those things that sound like a good idea in theory, but...
posted by wondermouse at 8:04 PM on November 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

If they are paying you better than you can get elsewhere, you have no leverage.

Performance reviews are more or less a game, and you should not allow yourself to get your ego/self-worth tied up in them. They are a way to try and justify a raise, but generally only if you are going to get one anyway; they are also ways to deny people raises, but generally only if they're not going to get one anyway. All else is politics and ass-covering, in my experience.

If you are not in line to get a raise this year, fighting for a meaningless "gold star" can be counterproductive, because it could just raise the bar for next year's review. Don't do that.

My guess is that higher management is pushing back on the high rating because they don't have the budget for the bonus or raise that they think would necessarily follow from that rating. Your bonus and/or pay adjustment are already set, I suspect; the rating is being backed into it.

Performance ratings are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Consider what the end is that you really want (bonus? raise? title change? new role?) and then—if you trust your manager and have a good relationship—have a candid conversation about your goals and what will be required to get there. Part of that might be getting a certain rating next time around, but my guess is that'll only be part of the equation and maybe not even the most important part.

But don't get hung up on an abstract rating. Focus on what you want and ignore games and metrics that aren't directly relevant to getting there.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:09 PM on November 14, 2018 [47 favorites]

This is the highest paying gig you can get for my field, so getting a different job doesn't make sense.

There's three different lines of management, and apparently mine is the one of all three that tends to be stingy with bonuses, high ratings, etc.

These two things do not sound at all consistent with each other, to me. Are you paid quite well for what you do, or not? Not compared to how you might theoretically be paid if you were able to attain the maximum possible bonuses and such according to your company's salary structure in this, your first year, but in general. You seem to like everything about this job. Are you being compensated well enough? Well, if you couldn't actually make this much if you went elsewhere, if you perform extremely well but your compensation is already extremely good for what you do, then it seems like they might already be paying perfectly fairly and you might need to just let go of the idea that the actual evaluations you receive matter that much.

On the other hand, if the job is only "the highest paying gig you can get" if you max out all these bonuses, but the actual bonuses aren't forthcoming, you need to start doing those comparisons based on the money you actually make, not the amount you think you theoretically could make. Basically, in either case, it seems like your company right now is very satisfied with the amount they pay you. If you're not capable of considering leaving this job, it seems like maybe they're not actually wrong about this being the amount you're worth right now. When you're overall well-compensated, the way you get more is by proving you can get more.

The evaluation process isn't really an objective measure of your worth. It's a way of them trying to figure out whether your current compensation needs to be adjusted to retain you. If they're consistently wrong about that, then by definition you'll be able to do better elsewhere.
posted by Sequence at 8:09 PM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's one thing to be irritated about being deprived of chances at better bonuses, promotions, etc., but you also say you're in the best-paid version of your job now, so I'm a little puzzled.

For the rest of sound like you are not fresh out of college, yet you believe that your performance rating is a meaningful arbiter of your actual performance? That it means anything beyond what it means for salary and advance? That a gold star is worth chasing in itself? That if you don't get a particular word assigned to your performance, you can't help being bitter and working less, and you won't stay in a job that pays well and that you otherwise like? Time to develop a sense of self-worth not dependent on external validation.
posted by praemunire at 8:23 PM on November 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

This is not a reflection of you and your work at all, it's an indication of their cheapness. They don't want to pay you more, simple as that. If it weren't for this, would you be happy with your salary? If so, then you just have to let it go, I'm afraid. Focus on the fact that everyone that has actually worked with you wanted to give you a higher assessment; clearly your work is good.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:00 PM on November 14, 2018 [11 favorites]

I've had performance reviews where the "rules" were explained to me as being that each department is only allowed to rate one or two employees as outstanding, and that basically you need to wait your turn. Also, an employee or two must be rated as unsatisfactory, regardless of their colleague's rating of them.

But understand, this all to promote "excellence" and has been calibrated to maximize performance and force companies to churn the dead wood.

No?.... You don't see it? You probably just haven't been around long enough to understand, that's all. Just hang in there!!!

In all seriousness, knowing a company has an "Employee Improvement Program" like the one you're describing would give me pause. You haven't even got to the part yet where the stellar employee, the one you know the company can't function without, the person who's there on Saturday and Sunday all day and night putting out fires and plugging the holes in the dam is given the "unsatisfactory" mark and needs to worry about being fired if they don't improve.
posted by xammerboy at 9:28 PM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm going to take a different tack here, the problem is your boss.

You should not have been told what rating "they wanted to give you". Either they could have got you the top rating in their discussions with senior management or they could not. You should not have been aware of that discussion and it looks as though your boss is trying to deflect attention away from their failure in getting you the rating.

Performance reviews are political and depending on the level of dysfunction of an organisation are affected by everything from budget to who is sleeping with who. Let it go if you can, the only thing you can affect is how it affects you. If you're looking for affirmation or reward for good performance in a system which is not really based on your performance then you will be disappointed.

You are well compensated, you like your job and your team. Take that win and let the rest slide off you.

TL;DR Forget it Jake, it's capitalism.
posted by fullerine at 11:32 PM on November 14, 2018 [14 favorites]

It could be because you're a woman. You could see if you feel that there's a significant difference in how men and women are treated, promoted and paid in the organization AND if you think there's any way to get it addressed without burning your career. You might be able to leverage the #metoo momentum to impress upon your business that they're not managing their risk well if there's the potential that their actions could be interpreted as sexism. (They're also shooting themselves in the foot if they're not maintaining a good gender and cultural diversity in the company, but they've probably already convinced themselves that's not true and you're unlikely to get much traction there.)

Or they might just screw over all their staff the same, in which case you have a hard decision to make.

(Also, fullerine has a good point about your boss and how they shouldn't have done this to you.)
posted by krisjohn at 12:03 AM on November 15, 2018

A couple of clarifiying points.

It's the highest base salary for my field. I work with others who have slightly different certification and they can make more, as well as in this particular department apparently have fewer power trips around bonuses and raises.

Also, the upper management person told me during the appraisal meeting that my local manager tried to rate me higher, and this was their compromise. That information came from both of them.

I suspect it is largely as Kaden2048 says, the budget for raises and bonuses was already determined and this is backfill formality. It is also possible that the forced mediocrity came from the upper manager's manager who would be the head of my discipline but not the head of my department on a larger scale.

It's about the gold star sure but it is also about getting my career in the org off on the right foot financially. I may have the good base salary but I still want to advance as quickly as I can for the benefit of my family.
posted by crunchy potato at 3:19 AM on November 15, 2018

It's about the gold star sure but it is also about getting my career in the org off on the right foot financially.

If you make it about both, you have less leverage on either, but the bottom line is that you don't get a raise by being great at your job, you get a raise by being great at making life better for the people above you. You are actually lucky in that they seem to have laid out in some detail for you exactly how to do that, and if you want the bonuses, etc. you've got to tick all those boxes.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:26 AM on November 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is all standard stuff. It's a zero sum game. If they give you a higher rating, HR will want to see your compensation go up to match it so it looks good on paper. To give you more compensation, it comes out of a bucket your manager received. It is easiest on the manager to split it evenly and everyone gets a mediocre review with a sprinkling of "I wanted to review you higher but this is how the company works". If the manager wants to give you a great review, HR will want your compensation rise to match and to do this, someone else in your group has a to get a bad review and less compensation rise.

Your manager probably has to fight tooth and nail to give an "Exceeds Expectations" review. They probably have to sit in a meeting with a lot of people and justify it.

How I deal with all this is that I ignore my performance review process. It's not there for enriching me or really helping me in anyway. It's an HR thing there to protect the company and create a paper trail of my employment. I get to know my manager well so she will talk to me frankly and fight for me and I keep an eye open to the outside world to know how well I should be compensated for my job and if there is an issue, I don't care if it is during review cycle. I bring it up.

The company's hands aren't really tied by anything. They can say "You're in our highest pay band already", but I don't care about that. That's their problem. "Oh but you have to work here 10 years for that much vacation." Screw that. It's a number in a field in the HR tool and it's important to me. It's easier on them to give everyone the same raise and a mediocre rating, but my job isn't easy. Their job doesn't always have to be easy either.

If you're good at your job, you're the type of person that makes the company money. Those don't grow on trees. Your employment is a two way street. If it bothers you, learn how to express that in terms that the company can engage on.
posted by cmm at 6:57 AM on November 15, 2018 [9 favorites]

There's an entire episode of The Office about this which you may or may not find amusing.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:17 AM on November 15, 2018

N-thing that this is standard corporate smoke and mirrors, budget shenanigans, and good old boys patriarchy. The only time I got a maximum performance rating was when my boss had totally stopped playing their game and had zero fucks left to give. Turns out he stopped playing because of serious personal issues, and he was eventually fired and then passed away. I miss him.
posted by Maarika at 9:15 AM on November 15, 2018

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