I have a confession to make. Despite having had 10 different bosses during my corporate career, I had never gotten a useful (read: concrete and actionable) performance review.
At best, the reviews were generic ⎼ my managers followed the companies’ standard templates, filling in the blanks to give me an average or above-average numerical score and sharing random anecdotes to justify it. Some were non-existent.
Others were ridiculous.
The more memorable feedback situations ranged from biased to childish:
Double-standards feedback: like many of the successful women I know, I received “too aggressive,” “too ambitious,” “too proactive,” “too show-offy,” comments for acting no differently than my male peers.
“Don’t ask for feedback” feedback: “You’re doing just fine. What kind of feedback do you want from me??” [read with an angry tone]
“You are not fun enough” feedback: I was evaluated low on organizational intelligence for using lunchtime to build bridges with people from other departments instead of hanging out with my immediate team
There are three common misconceptions in management training circles about performance evaluations:
That they are objective
That managers are properly trained to give them
That performance reviews are used to improve performance
We all want to believe that the corporate world is perfectly meritocratic but experience shows us otherwise.
Performance Evaluations Are Not Always Objective
Managers are human beings who are shaped by their own biases and influenced by the culture of the organizations they are part of.
Studies show, for example, that women are more likely than men to receive vague feedback that lacks concrete recommendations for improvement.
Although 360-degree feedback reviews are aimed to bring in more objectivity, I’ve seen cases where peers used them to detonate an employee who was a higher-performer or simply did not fit in within the group’s profile. Unless your manager has your back, negative comments from your 360-feedback can be used to hold you back.
There are also the unfortunate cases when managers need to force or stack-rank employees and have to place a number of team members in the bottom 10%. Tough luck if you are the new kid on the block, or the team has too many high-performers and your manager needs to arbitrarily choose among them and maybe likes you just a little less.
Thankfully, many companies, following the steps of giants such as Deloitte, Microsoft, GE, and Amazon, are ditching stack-ranking, having realized it creates unhealthy competition and reduces morale.
New moms have it worse. When coming back from maternity leave, some find out they were demoted or that their previously stellar performance is now discounted to average.
Managers Are Often Not Skilled At Giving Feedback
My feedback stories are not unique. I have heard hundreds of similar examples and spoken to executives and human resources professionals. In many companies, individual contributors are promoted to more senior roles for their ability to execute, rather than their people management skills.
In start-ups, where young and ambitious individuals are given a lot of responsibility without proper training, management skills are even more scarce. Uber, Away, Revolut, and SoFi are just a few cases in point.
These inexperienced managers often avoid giving any feedback or give feedback that is superficial (“I’ll write anything to get this out of my way”) or retaliatory (“I don’t like this person, so let me give them a piece of my mind” or “this person is smarter than me, so let me make sure they don’t get too far”).
Performance Reviews Are Often Used to Penalize Employees
In an ideal world, performance reviews would be used to help employees identify their strengths and develop plans for building skills they are missing to get to the next level (see an example here).
Unfortunately, sometimes managers use performance reviews as a paper trail to reward employees they like or punish those they dislike.
The more complex and ambiguous evaluation criteria the company has, the easier it is for a manager to find arguments to hold an employee back (A.k.a.: I like Jane and think therefore I will look for examples to highlight her potential and minimize her weaknesses. I don’t like Mary nor think she has potential, I will use examples to highlight her weaknesses).
What to Do If You Get Unfair Feedback in Your Performance Review?
If you get feedback that seems judgmental and ambiguous, hold the other party accountable to clarify it:
Ask for concrete examples of how you haven’t delivered expected results
Ask how he or she would have handled similar situations differently
Get their commitment to helping you improve: define actions both of you should take in the near future (ex: identify opportunities to build those skills, review progress over time, set a deadline for re-evaluation)
Put the agreement in writing and send it via e-mail to your manager after the meeting to confirm their understanding. Share it with your human resources representative when appropriate
If none of this works and you feel like you are being treated unfairly, reach out to human resources or a mentor to get additional feedback on your performance. They can also give practical advice on how to escalate unfair feedback or switch managers.
Going Forward, Prepare For Performance Reviews Well in Advance
When you come into the room to discuss your performance review, often the verdict about your promotion has already been given and the bonus pool has been defined and distributed.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t plan better for the next review season.
There are several things you can do in the meantime:
Build a stronger relationship and credibility with your manager and other decision-makers who may sit on the promotions and compensation committee.
Promotion decisions are often driven by perceptions of one’s potential and networking with the right people will help foment those impressions. Managing perceptions is especially important if your outcomes aren’t easily quantifiable (for example, if you don’t have profit and loss responsibilities or production targets) or depend on circumstances outside of your sphere of control (like dependencies on other teams’ efforts or the quality of the project portfolio you have been assigned).
Document your achievements throughout the year. Managers often focus on the examples they remember from the last few months prior to the review season. Collecting this evidence can give you the tools to argue your merits should they forget about earlier achievements.
Communicate your achievements regularly to relevant stakeholders. It may feel cheesy, but remember that not everyone knows what you are working on. Regular status reports can help keep them in the loop.
Ask for feedback about specific situations throughout the year, instead of waiting for the year-end: how did I do in that meeting? What did you think about my proposal? Was there anything I could have done better?
If you are planning to go on maternity leave, discuss your and your manager’s expectations in advance to make sure that you don’t have surprises upon coming back. Some companies duplicate prior performance scores to ensure that maternity leave doesn’t impact one’s career progression.
Be strategic about performance reviews and don’t fall into the pitfalls described above. If your company doesn’t provide training on giving and receiving feedback and you want to effect change, organize one on your own (there are plenty of resources and examples online) or advocate for bringing in an external expert.
This article was originally published in my column in Forbes Careers.