Learning how to decipher the code managers use to rate employees empowers you to improve your results and elevate your performance in the review system.

What does a hiring manager really want to know when they call your boss to ask about you? How you work? How effective you are? How much coaching you’ll need? Where you rank against your peers? Essentially – are you an asset or a liability, and to what degree? Performance reviews create anxiety for employees and managers alike. Even the best systems are imperfect, but they’re especially troublesome when used as the only feedback employees receive. Given that written feedback is rare, It’s helpful to understand how your supervisor applies precise language to rank you against your peers and other employees across the organization.

As a matter of principle reviews shouldn’t hold surprises. Negative comments should only appear on your performance review if they were shared with you previously. Managers who are afraid to provide coaching,  guidance, and feedback, outside of the formal review process, need training themselves and are less likely to help advance your career.

Performance reviews contain descriptions about three qualities, while the employee’s rank is encoded within the text:

  1. Performance.
  2. Potential.
  3. Fit.

Review systems force managers to rank their direct reports. Across regions, and divisions only a select number of employees can be assigned the highest rating. This causes managers to compete against each other to capture their fair share of the top ratings. Employees who know about this are in a better position to provide a comprehensive list of accomplishments to share with their managers – to use during the “trading” process. The process concludes with scores and descriptions for areas the company requires managers to focus on. Many employees share the same scores, but language sets them apart. High performers should strive for their narrative and scores to match; disconnects between a score and the narrative can create problems. This is often the case when a high performer is new to a group and bonuses are tied to the score. The new employee may be well-regarded and likely to be promoted, but the management team doesn’t want to reduce the bonus payout for an experienced employee. The path of least resistance is to give the new employee a lower score and a glowing review. Conversely, mid-tier scores coupled with a scathing review spell trouble. The score is used to avoid a difficult conversation about poor performance, but the language will reappear when layoffs are announced.

Adjectives provide clues about relative performance: marginal, acceptable, good, great, best (superlative). When superlatives are used, like the “best,” comparison groups are often added to give readers information about the employee’s overall performance score. Notice the size of the group used for the comparison. The best salesperson on the Los Angeles team (top 20%), the best salesperson in the California region (top 10%), the best salesperson in North America (top 5%), the best in the company (top 1%).

Superlatives, combined with the comparison group size, and a time component can give you a very accurate picture about how your score ranks against your peers. Another “time” to focus on is language that puts timing into a discussion about your next promotion. “Ready for promotion” is not as strong as, “Promote now”, but both are stronger than a lot of other comments you might receive.

It’s impossible to guess at the meaning or motivation behind vague language, but phrases to watch for include: “intense curiosity” (gets into other people’s business); “frequently offers unsolicited suggestions” (not a good follower); “frequently debates ideas with peers” (argumentative, or know it all); “serves on numerous boards and committees” (not focused on job). You get the picture, and it’s not good.

Let’s move on to typical language; consider these example reviews:

“Mike is a seasoned account manager, and the best on his team. His performance frequently exceeds expectations and Mike usually reaches his sales targets by the end of each month. Mike routinely volunteers to help new employees, and he fills in for absent co-workers whenever requested. Over the next year Mike will attend new leader training and is expected to perform above his peers.”

Team Diagram

Here’s a stronger version:

“Mike is the best account manager in the Western Region. He always exceeds his sales targets and frequently volunteers to train new employees. Mike  is ready for a promotion.”

Regional Team

And now the strongest possible language:

“Mike is the best account manager at ACME company, and has held the top spot for several years. He’s a team-player, respected by his supervisors and peers, and his knowledge and experience are sought by employees and customers alike. Mike should be promoted at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Team Venn Diagrams

 

When it comes to understanding performance reviews, a little knowledge goes a long way.

 

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