performance review

Game on:

Here’s what it looks like prior to that performance review meeting. A year of espresso-driven early mornings, late-night e-meetings accompanied with apologetic texts to your partner and last-minute pushes for commission or production numbers.

And you’re in front of your boss for your annual performance review, ready to reap the rewards of your labor when you see a word practically reach out of the screen and punch you in the face:


What the actual f*ck?

Many of you will be familiar with the special, dispiriting pain of a performance review. The yearly opportunity for your company’s upper management to tell you that you’re useful, but not useful enough to warrant giving you the money and recognition you deserve.

These reviews are among the moments in professional life when input (work) does not equal output (reward). They end up as an entirely different equation:

Input x a ton of theories and concepts devised by academics ÷ your company’s ulterior, money-saving motives = an outcome that doesn’t reflect your real abilities or efforts

If that seems needlessly complicated, it’s because it is. But despite all the HR theories on how best to measure human competence, the outcome of the reviews always affects real life – your earnings, self-worth, and morale all take a hit.

What is turns out to be very different from what should be.

There is a cottage industry dedicated to new companies who update performance models, apps, and programs more often than iPhone upgrades. For this reason, reviews have become as fickle as fashion.

Every HR dept wants to hitch themselves to the bandwagon of the latest tools in the trade – even if they’re not the best, most representative, or fairest ways to assess an employee’s performance. Ultimately, it takes a toll on the workforce.

You don’t have to enter a performance review unequipped, however. 

Team Vippi will teach you how to sharpen your weapons before you engage in battle.

Why are performance reviews open to manipulation?

Okay, perhaps you don’t have to go *quite* as far as The Narrator from Fight Club – but you should develop a working knowledge where you hold leverage and where you don’t.

Very few people leave a performance review meeting with a smile and state of contentment. Most folks feel a niggling sense of incompleteness and a crushing wave of self-doubt after they leave the meeting.

Companies can manipulate performance reviews, quite simply, because they are often poorly designed and always change. Companies move from annual to bi-annual to quarterly, from 1:1 to 360 reviews, from behavioral to target-driven appraisals on a whim.

The metric for employee excellence shifts constantly – perhaps so that no one really knows how to beat it. This is no coincidence. Reviews are one of the biggest weaknesses of an organization’s HR structure.

No one has figured out the perfect, global standard for an assessment yet. Strong systems are very difficult to manipulate, but weak systems are putty in the hands of those who stand to gain from their manipulation. In this case, that’s your employer. Damn.

Yes, the performance review system at your workplace is more likely than not to be deeply flawed – but such is life. The review is unfair. Life is unfair. You have to orchestrate the moment to your advantage.

The Team Vippi perspective

Three members of Team Vippi had reviews recently. They were all relatively terrible experiences.

Experience 1: A 360 performance review, based around a leadership matrix marking accountability, performance, and peer rankings.

One member of Team Vippi had a review recently and got an extremely solid score with glowing qualitative feedback. However, they were at first denied a pay raise despite having met all of the criteria.

They’d recently changed teams (but not job roles). Despite being one of the most experienced team members in their new unit, they were denied the pay raise to which they were entitled as they were deemed a “training” member of staff.

This member took issue with the situation in the review, having been given advance notice that they wouldn’t be seeing an increased salary. This was escalated to senior management, who saw the flaw in the process and took corrective action. This resulted in a pay raise.

As it turned out, the employee shouldn’t even have been reviewed by their current manager, as the work they were doing came under their previous manager’s supervision..

Sometimes, your company will try to catch you out on an admin loophole and expect you to stay silent.

Experience 2: A target-based review based on hitting accountancy goals.

Another member of Team Vippi worked as an accountant for a large firm. They casually relayed to us how their firm would mark everyone average in their reviews: The company was international, and their overseas corporate masters wanted to see that costs were being kept in check.

It was cited as the most regular reason that their office was hemorrhaging employees. There was simply no incentive to do well at their job, as no matter how hard they worked, they’d be denied a performance-based pay raise.

Your rating in the appraisal will rarely reflect your actual achievements. Instead, some companies will try to keep your score low in order to reduce costs.

Experience 3: A 1:1 review based around personal projections, qualitative feedback, and an open discussion.

The third and final example was for a much smaller operation, but one no less open to corporate gaslighting.

The employee was given a window to air legitimate grievances. They raised a complaint in the review about a useless subordinate who wasn’t their responsibility to train. This Member of Team Vippi often worked unpaid overtime to support her colleagues and make their lives easier. 

Our friend on Team Vippi was told that if she was unwilling to delegate to this subordinate, they’d be marked down on the “Team Player” metric, despite often giving up free time to support her teammates.

Our Team Member also told their boss about having upsold products over and above her job spec. But unlike the sales team, no commission was awarded for the extra sales.

An employee should be able to talk about their hangups as part of a performance review – but that’s not how it pans out. The manager shut down the talk of bonuses and proposed that the company reduce her wages and replace her salary with a part-commission scheme.

You need to be keenly aware of any changes to your responsibilities and any tasks your boss assigns to you outside of your job description. They may be trying to milk more work from you without giving you extra compensation.

We will add that you will sometimes have to prove your worth outside of your normal duties when you’re gunning for a promotion. But those extra duties should be in line with clearly defined tasks, and there should be regular check-ins to monitor your progress as you level up.

If they’re manipulating your job description aimlessly, it’s not an accident. 

You are not the only one under review – your boss is, too. They may be under pressure to find loopholes and mark you down so that the stakeholders and investors can be spared the extra cash outlay.

Performance reviews are essentially a second interview of your credibility. 

And managers will find loopholes, excuses, and fabrications to justify refusing your long-overdue pay bump. They’re also likely to be on a quota or budget.

Where they catch you is by having at least a few questions that are qualitative rather than quantitative. They’re harder to prove wrong. So instead of, “How many times did you exceed your monthly target?” they may ask, “Do your team feel overworked most of the time?”

Here’s how to insulate yourself against these manipulations – how to stand up and say, “no more,” but in a way that doesn’t cost you your job.

The 4 Ps of Performance Reviews: Know how to play the review game as well as your manager

All is not lost. While nothing you do is going to make the whole review process fairer, there are ways to protect yourself against its manipulations.

Prepare for the performance review.

Make sure you go in prepared. You know how your year’s gone, where you’ve excelled, and where you’ve f*cked up a little bit. And we all screw up. No one’s perfect, and pretending otherwise will put you in an awkward position for the review.

It’s more important to be able to defend why any mistakes have happened. There’s a three-step process for justifying your actions:

  1. Be open about any shortcomings or mistakes that were made – and own them. Avoid blaming others for pitfalls you know you had.
  2. Lay out what alternative actions were available to you at the time of the mistake.
  3. Explain why those weren’t desirable options for you at the time, and clarify your reason for picking the course of action you did.

Get these lines of reasoning ready before you start your review.

It’s also important to get endorsements from teammates and colleagues who enjoy working with you. Make sure they’re written down on company-headed paper so that your boss knows it’s official. Peer reviews will be a part of some types of review cycles, so that might already be part of the process.

Position your progress positively.

“How do you think you did over this year/quarter?” It’s such a loaded question, but it’ll form part of your review. It’s a trap – like hearing the question, “So, baby, what’s special about today?” when you’ve forgotten your anniversary.

Self-reviews are a part of an appraisal. But don’t think that your boss is looking for a holistic review. That’s like showing a hungry tiger all of the soft parts of your body to snack on. You need to focus on the positive aspects of your performance and avoid giving your manager anything negative to pounce on.

Yes, you need to be aware of the parts of your job you’re less good at, but only so you can defend yourself when your boss brings them up. Your manager wants you to admit fault in order to launch further attacks. So give them the opposite. Be brief and positive with your self-appraisal.

Let them bring up any shortcomings. If they nudge you about a perceived problem, throw it back at them and let them state what the issue was. They’re not stupid. They already know. An immediate expression of self-incrimination simply gives them a license to dock your pay increase.

When they attack, only then do you bring out your defense.

Propose solutions and further meetings.

When they highlight weaknesses in your approach to work, realize that it’s professional, not personal. On that front, it’s also their responsibility to help you boost your performance (unless it’s rudimentary stuff like being rude in the office or turning up late – in which case, get your sh*t together). 

As their feedback is professional, any weakness they highlight should have a professional remedy – like a skills course that they should pay for. If they don’t agree to fund a course, then they’re not genuinely interested in your development, and their whole pretense falls by the wayside.

It’s also important to avoid answering difficult questions right away. Don’t shoot from the hip. If you feel uncomfortable responding to a particular line of inquiry, let your boss know, and advise them that you’ll answer the question in the next meeting after giving it some thought.

They will back off at this point. Placing you under duress could become a legal issue. Plus, they can’t really say no to a further meeting, but at the same time, doing so gives you more time to prepare, which they don’t want.

Also, ask your boss if you’re able to reconfigure the job description going forward. If you’re being asked to do things way outside your pay grade, absorb someone else’s work, or train people you don’t oversee, perhaps the problem is not that you need a pay raise but that they’re trying to milk too much from your current level of pay.

If you do three tasks well but fall short on the fourth, they’ll try to manipulate you out of the bonus or pay raise using that factor. That one thing is usually qualitative, and often over and above your actual job description. Even if you’re hitting all numerical targets, they’ll find abstracts like “being a team player” to mark you down.

So, in your self-review, quantify against your goals rather than qualifying against abstracts. Then, when your boss brings up qualitative reasons why you don’t deserve a pay raise, whip out your references and endorsements from colleagues and team members.

Protect yourself.

Study your job description and the HR manual to the tee – how is the performance review measured? What are the options for recourse? 

Follow every meeting with an email summarizing:

  • Exactly what was discussed
  • The consensus you and your boss reached on your achievements, pitfalls, and your level of progress
  • The plan of action moving forward, even if that action was to arrange the next meeting

This will demonstrate your professional credibility, and they will be less inclined to enter bully mode in these meetings if they know you’re logging everything.

It’s also important to check the HR manual. Is the feedback you got universally applicable to other members of staff? If so, ask your manager if HR will be sending out a memo for the benefit of all other employees letting them know of the behavioral recommendation. If your manager says no, ask them why.

It may be that they’re actively looking for loopholes and singling you out. In this instance, you’re forcing them to admit they’re doing so while looking like you’re protecting the company’s interest in sharing desirable behaviors and actions. It’s an incredibly smart move when your back’s against the wall.

And, yes, the time may come when you suspect bullying or discrimination and need to discuss your employment rights – but always make this a last resort. Contacting your lawyer is fighting talk. Check the HR manual to see if there’s a resource for formal or informal arbitration.

Remember, though, that there’s always an implication to your actions – be streetwise. The arbitration will sour the business relationship, and it might be that the company goes even further to avoid promoting you.

A performance review is all about shifting the weight of vulnerability.

If you show that you’re too vulnerable, your company will pounce on it. If you go on the offensive and make them feel vulnerable, they’ll become aggressive and defensive. Neither of these is a viable solution.

Instead, transfer the vulnerability to a space in between the two parties. Problems are never solved, always transferred. So shift that vulnerability to a place where you both have to reach out to solve it. That way, you’re both insulated from the more harmful effects of the review. And you can build a constructive solution together without generating tension.

As part of a wider approach to protecting yourself during performance reviews, be sure to include HR as part of your networking strategy when you’re connecting with other departments and clients – you’ll need them on your side. And if they like you, they’ll be more inclined to help you in your darker moments.

6 practical tips for acing your performance review

While developing a strategic mindset for reviews is good practice, there are distinct practical steps you can take to bolster your chance of a positive outcome.

  1. Build a success spreadsheet and endorsement file as the year progresses. Make sure you jot down your wins and gather glowing reviews from colleagues and customers alike. These will help you collate your positives when it comes to review time.
  2. Look at your goals from your last performance review. Have you lived up to what you said you’d do? Has the company honored their word on your progress? How has your job role changed over the year? Going over your last review provides a benchmark for your next conversation.
  3. Highlight three areas of great success with quantitative specifics. Instead of speaking in generalities, hone in on specific areas of rapid growth or business success that you’ve helped facilitate.
  4. Sketch out three areas of potential growth over the next year. Don’t phrase these growth opportunities as weaknesses, or your boss will pounce on them. But every manager wants to see a desire for development, so showcase this.
  5. Know what makes you special. What makes you unique? Work out what only you can do in the business and play up to it in your review. Any facets of your skillset or personality that make you more valuable are going to put you in better stead for that bonus.
  6. Prepare mentally. It’s not all portfolios and endorsements – if you’re in poor mental shape on the day, you’re likely to slip up, get agitated, or drop the ball. Make sure you get enough sleep, avoid going out the night before, and do some exercise on the morning of your review to cultivate a winner’s mentality.

Remember, your credibility is on the line. So be credible.

The roundup

A performance review can be nerve-wracking and soul-crushing in equal measure. But you can protect your progress (and your pay packet) by preparing yourself, focusing on the positives, and avoiding any headlong rush into questions that you don’t want to answer yet.

Certainly don’t mention arbitration or litigation unless it’s your final option. This will make your company feel threatened and take aggressive action against you.

While Team Vippi can’t be there by your side in the interview, we want to see you flourish. Make the most of the tools we’ve shown you.

Now go and show your boss who’s boss.

Article resources

Arruda, W. (2017). Nine surefire ways to ace your annual review.