The Corporate world can break you if you aren’t vigilant. The “performance review” culture is all pomp, no circumstance. You get an initial review, and supervisors give you subsequent “feedback” which involves your strengths, your improvement points and your rating. If you perform to standard, you will more than likely be “baselined”, or receive an average rating (i.e., 3 out of 5, “meets expectations” etc.) every review cycle. You work on the improvement points, with the idea that when your next review occurs, you will supplant the baseline and receive an above average or excellent rating. Alas, when the next review is conducted, your manager informs you that you have received the same baseline rating as last time. Frustrating, right?
When you inquire as to why, they regurgitate mantras such as “you have to perform at the next level in order to get a higher rating” or they’ll pull out other phantom requirements you didn’t know existed until this current review! They may also mention your peers at your job level and tell you that “others are doing more to justify getting higher ratings” not knowing that “your peers”all speak to one another and hear the same shit! The baseline rating is management’s way of saying “you’re doing your job, but nothing extraordinary.” The baseline rating is also the new glass ceiling in Corporate America. They give you this rating to “motivate” you to achieve greatness and work harder. They give generic goals to help you get better ratings and move up in the company. The only problem is that once you reach those goals, they SWITCH those goals like an older sibling keeping your favorite toy JUST far enough out of your reach!
Let me explain how management attempts to keep you running on that hamster wheel called performance rating expectations. I actually broke this down to a HR manager once and he was speechless. You can’t receive a higher performance rating unless you perform work at the level above you (i.e., an associate should be performing senior associate responsibilities). How do you get those opportunities to perform at the level above you? You must prove to management that you can perform tasks at the next level.
How do you prove you can perform tasks at the next level? Your work product will be reflected in previous performance reviews. What rating would you need to justify confidence in management that you should receive the opportunity to perform tasks at the next level? You’ll need a rating above the baseline. So how can you receive a higher performance rating? You can’t receive a higher performance rating unless you perform work at the level above you…
The above explanation was an actual conversation I had with an old performance manager. When I repeated what he said verbatim, he had no other alternative but to repeat some management catch phrases and Jedi mind trick me into focusing on the next years rating cycle. Managers will give you generic improvement goals like “ask for more work”, “communicate better”, and “get involved in committees”. This sounds good, but when I performed high level responsibilities, joined the affinity groups, performed the community services, and mingled with the “V.I.P.’s”, I still got the baseline rating! Management’s excuse will be that others were performing better and doing more. Interesting enough, when speaking to colleagues at my level, we once again heard the exact same thing. What a coincidence! There’s a reason why companies advise their employees not to discuss salary or ratings with coworkers.
Here’s what’s amusing about the perception of performance reviews: These performance reviews will make you feel super average. They will make you feel as if you are nowhere near the high performing employee you think management and the organization need. However, I bet if you took your talents elsewhere, they would freak and try to offer a competitive package to get you to stay! That’s one way to define your value to your team, is it not? How would your department perform if you quit? Who do they count on to complete “special assignments?” If the answer is you, than there’s a glaring disconnect between your value to the organization and how they reflect that in their ratings.
Management will keep you at an average level, KNOWING you are worth more. They’ll give you the same talking points for improving yourself, but it won’t translate to your rating or your paycheck. Performance reviews become Groundhog Day after a while. You truly luck-up if you have a manager/H.R. representative who LIKES you and REALLY wants you to succeed. They will “pull you through” and rate you well, or at the very most rate you what you truly deserve.
I’ve left jobs for places that offered more growth and better pay, and then once I was immersed in the new Corporate culture, I realized that the same politics were in place. The pay raise or change of scenery doesn’t make it less frustrating for those who want recognition for their work. You’ll have some managers who only accentuate “improvement areas” while highlighting your strengths as an afterthought.
This is the Corporate culture in 2014. We are not our parent’s generation (on average) of staying at one job until retirement. We work for 2 years, reevaluate, and take our talents where they’ll be appreciated (and better compensated), until the cycle repeats. The best advice I could offer is to meet with your supervisor, make CLEAR from the beginningWHAT it will take to get X rating, set up touch points throughout the performance cycle and monitor consistently. If you perform those tasks, and they are in agreement, there’s logically no way they can justify baselining you. If they do, then you know it’s either time to escalate to someone higher in the company who can better arbitrate this situation, or that it’s time to find a new job. If you’re a first year Corporate employee, unless you literally change the game (like make the company millions of dollars), you’re getting baselined. Don’t worry about that. Just make sure to avoid going below the baseline. You never want to hear the term “PIP” and you name uttered in the same sentence. Aim for the baseline or higher. Don’t give anyone a reason to demote you.
This post first appeared on Medium