Performance Review

I contracted for a few years at a company that used a ranking of 1 to 5 in its annual performance reviews. The review form had multiple sections, and each section contained multiple questions, so by the time you’d finished analyzing your work, you’d ranked yourself maybe a dozen times. Your manager evaluated you on the same criteria, and when you got together, you hoped to discover a meeting of the minds. I generally did, and do. I know how this goes.

The dead center, 3, meant that you had jumped through every hoop, delivered every deliverable, met every date, and handled your never-ending workflow with few if any hiccups. One screwup, one time, was permitted. Beyond that, you’d better handle it all, at a high level. A 2, by the way, meant you were screwing up and were probably on a performance plan. A 1 meant you were a hair’s breadth from being let go for cause. (I am a good girl, a high performer, I have complied all my life long, and have never had a 2 or a 1 at any company, ever. I was not raised to draw attention to myself. Learn how the world works, and make your way in it. You don’t have to be a superstar. Just don’t screw up.)

If you really shone at something, you might get a 4 in that category. If you were a knockout at a couple of things, those 4s might raise your average to 3.5, or 3.8, or 3.9. At an overall performance review ranking of 4%, you got some kind of reward. I don’t know what it was, because as a contractor, I never paid that much attention. For a 5, if a 5 were ever to exist, the company would have, I don’t know, had the Air Force spell out your name in contrails and given you a 5% bonus, something munificent like that. Everyone’s annual bonus was tied to two things: your number, and how the company did that year. So your number really mattered, and it also really mattered that the company rounded the ranking numbers down, not up, and rounded them down no matter where the decimal was. So you could kill yourself with effort and achieve a 3.9, and be rounded down to a 3.

The wide-open secret was that everyone was a 3.

What is the point of that system, other than to make it clear that contempt was a foundational aspect of the relationship between upper management and the rest of the workforce? Even as a contractor, I was asked to do the self-evaluation, although my pay wasn’t affected and I didn’t receive a bonus. I could see some benefit to it. There has to be a way to handle poor performance or irresponsible behavior, and for long-term employees, there should be a way to encourage an employee to develop new skills or improve existing ones. Because in those days contractors were kept on for years, it made sense for our managers to think about the skills we brought, fitting us into the scheme of the work that would be coming to us.

Of course, I knew people who did my kind of work who did awful, sloppy, incompetent work, and got by year after year because companies don’t understand what we do and pass along crap without comment. A review system only works if the reviewers are competent.

For myself, I didn’t have a problem with a yearly evaluation and discussion. Of course, the travesty of the ranking system was the source of deep cynicism and low morale among the fulltime people. It contributed to the harshness of that environment.

I was going to be a hippie, or a pianist, or an academic, but instead I ended up with a worklife that traveled through this business landscape, and many others. It’s so odd to me, so odd.

I talk to my sister-in-law about it a lot; she was very successful in business. I talk to my former manager, who became a personal friend after she left the company. She was a dynamo. They don’t say much in return – how can they – but it comforts me to imagine them near me. What would they say, if they could?

February 7, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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