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Know this before your performance review

By Anthony Balderrama, writer
The annual performance review at work is crucial, and experts have advice on how to better prepare for it.
The annual performance review at work is crucial, and experts have advice on how to better prepare for it.
  • Expert: Before review, reflect on facts, feelings, concrete results of past year
  • Good bosses don't make review about scolding, columnist says
  • Take notes, plan steps that will produce measurable results
  • Unless it comes up naturally, leave salary negotiation talks for another time

( -- Do you remember the feeling you had when report card time rolled around in grade school?

If you were a good student or had a particularly good semester, you didn't dread it. You might have even been excited because you'd get kudos and possibly a reward from your parents.

On the other hand, if your grades for the past few months looked more like football scores than basketball scores, you probably had some butterflies in your stomach. Maybe you even "lost" the report card on the way home.

Jump ahead a few decades and it's déjà vu. Your annual performance review is like report card day, except with nicer clothes and W-2s. You get feedback on your work for the past year, hope that it's good and set new goals for the coming months or year.

The review is a chance to find out what your boss wants from you and for you to explain what you want from your job. While you could only wring your hands as you waited for the arrival of your grades, you can and should prepare for your review.

The self-assessment

"An employee should just spend a little time reflecting on the facts, feelings and results of the past period," suggests Paul Glen, author and columnist.

"The facts include what happened, successes and failures. Feelings would be how the employee reacted to the facts and how she felt her supervisors felt about her successes and failures. And then review the concrete results of her work."

This preparation will put you in the right mindset for listening to what your boss has to say and get you thinking about what you want to discuss. The review is about you and your performance, Glen reminds.

"Ask questions about how to improve your performance and to clarify expectations for your current job and the next one you want," he suggests. "Do not make the discussion into a critique of your boss or your peers. That is deflection rather than being useful."

Accepting good and bad feedback

Nevertheless, you might find yourself wanting to deflect or raise a fuss if you receive criticism. Don't let that happen.

Said Glen, "Defensiveness is never useful. The boss wants an employee to try to understand the criticism first. Whether you disagree with the criticism or not, ask questions about it and try to understand it completely from the boss' point of view. Then if you feel that it's unfair, you can push back ... gently. But if you try to push back before you really understand, it will send the message that you are not interested in feedback."

Don't forget that all feedback, both the criticism and the praise, is designed to enhance your future work. For example, you've shown a command of your regular job duties, but you're not showing the leadership skills that you'd need to move on to the next level. Therefore you know you can do the job, but you need to demonstrate that you're capable of handling a promotion.

The review process isn't about scolding -- at least if you have a good boss -- it's about making you a better employee. If the company just wanted to criticize you, they could save everyone the time and send you a mean e-mail. Or just fire you.

Your responsibility after the review is to use the criticism and praise you received in the review as guidelines for daily performance.

"Take a few notes and then think about what concrete steps you can take to actually improve your performance and ensure that your improvements are noticeable," Glen advises.

"Remember that you don't have to demonstrate things in the next week. After a suitable period of time, perhaps halfway to the next review, ask the boss for feedback on how you are doing on the specific issues that were addressed. That will get you feedback in time to do something about it and will get your boss to try to notice things as well."

The salary talk

When you're thinking about your review, you're probably also thinking about how the outcome affects your pay. In some companies, salary negotiations might be an entirely separate meeting that takes place at a different time. Other businesses use the performance review to handle compensation talks. Glen urges employees to think of the review and the salary discussion as separate issues. If your compensation is going to be discussed, the boss will be the one to mention it first.

"If the boss doesn't bring it up, at the end, ask how the salary review relates to the performance review," Glen suggests.

"The purpose of performance review is to give an employee feedback about their performance with respect to expectations and to communicate future expectations. A salary review is to reset pay with respect to others in the firm and with the external market."

By letting the salary talk occur naturally, you're not moving focus from you or your performance. You show the boss that your mind is on more than the paycheck and you're concerned about what he or she has to say.

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