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Working and Career

When Performance Reviews Become Unpleasant Surprises

March 28, 2012 9:08am (EDT)

When it comes to performance reviews, perhaps nothing can be more frustrating than to be “surprised” during the conversation. However, before we go much further down the path, it is only fair that I share my personal bias against virtually all surprises. Admittedly, I’m not a lover of surprises, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask my wife. She’s learned the hard way that “surprise birthday parties” are my own version of a personal nightmare. I’d much rather go to the dentist than have a surprise party thrown on my behalf (usually complete with blindfolds, unknown destinations, and mystery companions). Oooh… I just shudder at the thought. With the dentist at least you know what’s coming. And frankly, performance reviews should be more like going to the dentist for a check-up than walking into a surprise party. And like going to the dentist for a check-up, both parties should have a pretty clear idea of how it’s going to go. There may be a cavity here, or a tooth to watch there, but all in all, you should leave with all of your teeth intact. No big surprises.

Consider David’s story of his performance review turning from a routine dentist check-up into the equivalent of a surprise party from Hell.

Surprise! Your bonus is considerably less than what I promised you

David is a rock star at work. Whatever he touches turns to gold. It is no surprise that he is heavily recruited wherever he goes. And so, that is how David landed his current role working for a boutique real estate management firm. He was heavily pursued for nearly a year until David finally agreed to come on board. However, there was one big sticking point before David joined the firm. Because of the firm’s size, they were not able to match David’s last salary. As a compromise, they promised David a significant bonus if he met all of his goals at the end of the year to compensate for his reduced salary. But this was no ordinary bonus. At the end of the day, David’s bonus was going to equal nearly half of his annual income.

David hit the ground running from day one. The firm, wanting to see what David could do (and perhaps trying to make it difficult for David to hit his goals at the end of the year) gave David its most distressed and troubled properties. In amazing fashion, David turned each and every one of those properties around. He exceeded every measurable goal laid out for him and made other positive contributions that are difficult to measure. He built great relationships with his co-workers and began nurturing and grooming the younger employees at the firm. David was the firm’s All-Star after his first year.

When the time for his performance review rolled around, David wasn’t nervous or concerned. In fact, he expected the conversation to go without any issues. He had hit all of his goals that had been agreed upon to trigger his bonus. As David expected, his manager raved on his performance. Phrases like “no one in this firm has ever achieved what you have… you have received scores that are unheard of here … and this was just your first year!” peppered the entire review. And then came time for the grand finale. David’s manager unveiled the bonus and, drum roll, it was 80% less than what had been promised to David.

David was angry, offended, unappreciated, and heart-broken. But remember, David is a rock star for a reason. Despite the unpleasant surprise that was thrust on him, David handled the situation masterfully. First, David maintained his composure throughout the meeting. He asked for clarification, reminded his boss of the promises made and tried to understand why things had not played out like they were supposed to. He did not yell and scream nor did he reach across the table and strangle his boss (although, he wanted to desperately). When no resolution was reached, David did a second brilliant move. He called a meeting with his boss and his boss’ boss. In the meeting explained his case, communicated the promises made and came prepared to show all of his results. In the end, David received his full bonus.

However, there were consequences to the surprise review David received. David’s view of the whole event is that his boss was trying to keep expenses down so he gambled to see if he could get David to receive a lower bonus. This move resulted in David no longer trusting or respecting his boss. Second, and most importantly, David does not possess the same commitment and passion for the firm that he once had. If another offer comes along, as I’m sure it will, David will likely make a move.

Making the performance review conversation like a trip to the dentist

There are plenty of other “surprises” that happen in performance reviews. From suddenly being told that you are dangerously close to being fired, to being informed that the promotion that was promised to you isn’t going to happen after all despite your hard work. Believe me, I’ve heard some surprises that would make your head spin. So what can you do? Simple. Whether you are the boss or the employee, there is equal responsibility on both sides to check in quarterly and review progress and promises. Is everyone brushing and flossing like they are supposed to? How are things looking? Are we still on track to get that “clean bill of health” we discussed at the beginning of the year? In other words, make sure that expectations on both ends are clear and shared. Everything from what success needs to look like to the promises on what one gets when those goals are reached. Check in quarterly to ensure nothing has changed.

Whether you like surprises in your life or not is up to you. Personally, I can’t stand them. I don’t like my birthdays, vacations and other “fun” activities to be smattered with too many blindfolds, unknown destinations, and mystery companions. Regardless of your view of surprises, I think we can agree that surprises at work rarely turn out well. Work hard to keep surprises in your performance review to a minimum and hopefully, it can feel more like that routine visit to the dentist than the surprise party with just you and all of your “ex’s.” Yuck.

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