Imagine that your manager has just scheduled your yearly performance review. As an employee (or a manager reporting to another, higher-placed manager), the question at the top of your mind is probably something like "how do I prepare to ensure that I get a positive review and a big salary increase?"

Well, but if you're only asking that question now, you're a year late. The time to ask that question was before you had your last performance review or (if this is your first review at this firm) when you were discussing the terms of your employment.

That's because performance reviews aren't what they seem to be. Like many aspects of corporate life, the stated intent is often quite different (or even diametrically opposite to) the actual purpose. For example,

  • Diversity Program. Stated Intent: Encourage diversity in hiring and promotions. Actual Purpose: Provide plausible deniability of bias in hiring and promotions.
  • Mission Statement. Stated Intent: Communicate the core values of the corporate culture. Actual Purpose: Communicate how you wish your customers viewed your company but don't.
  • Human Resources. Stated Intent: "maximize employee performance in service of an employer's strategic objectives." (Source: Wikipedia). Actual Purpose: compile dossiers on all employees so they can be fired without legal repercussion.

If those definitions sound a bit too cynical, I have a question for you: Could you please be even more naïve? Anyway, on to your performance review. Yay!

  • Performance Review. Stated Intent: "Provide a method by which the job performance of an employee is documented and evaluated." (Wikipedia, again.) Actual Purpose: Get you to accept the smallest raise possible without causing you to quit in disgust.

Managers usually accomplish this process of "letting you down easy" via a two-pronged strategy:

  1. Criticize you enough so you conclude your salary expectations were unrealistic, or
  2. Compliment you hoping you'll be satisfied with an increase in praise rather than pay.

Obviously, neither of these situations are to your advantage but, alas, the outcome (i.e. a 1% raise) is a foregone conclusion if you've been silly enough to believe that, without your paying attention to the politics of salary, your contributions will be fairly rewarded.

In other words, you're assuming that your performance review is like a report card where your parents give you a cash bonus for every "A." If you go into the review with an attitude like that, you're ripe to be easily manipulated.

Here's the big secret, kids! From the perspective the employee, a performance review is two things:

  1. Your last chance to collect on the commitments your boss made to you during last year's performance review (assuming you held up your end of the bargain).
  2. Your opportunity to negotiate the raise that you'll get a year in the future (i.e. at your next performance review (again assuming you hold up your end of the bargain).

In my most recent book, Business Without the Bullsh*t, I dedicated an entire chapter to performance reviews. Here's an improved and updated version of that chapter:

1. Long before your review, ask how you'll be measured and rewarded.

Every time you get a new boss or your boss schedules a performance review, have a one‐on‐one meeting with him or her as soon as you can. Ask the following questions:

  1. What are your expectations of me over the next year?
  2. How will you measure whether I've fulfilled them?
  3. If I meet or exceed those metrics, what do I get?

Your goal is to get your boss to be as specic as possible on all three points. If you do not have this conversation, when your next performance review comes around, you will be blindsided, because you've only been guessing what's expected of you and assuming what reward you'll get.

Whenever your boss makes you a promise, listen carefully to how that promise is worded. It's one thing for a boss to say, "Do this and I'll promote you" (which seldom happens), and quite another for a boss to say, "Do this and you might get a promotion."

Whenever you hear vagueness in a promise, ask a question that, if answered truthfully, will remove that vagueness. Example:

  • Boss: If you complete project A by August, you'll be in line for a promotion.
  • You: I'm not sure what you mean by "in line for a promotion." Assuming I do successfully complete project A by August, what's the likelihood of the promotion on a scale of one to ten, ten being a sure thing?

If your boss can't or won't provide specifics, you can assume whatever promise is being made is meaningless. In business, a promise is only a commitment when it has measurable details connected to it.

Take detailed notes on the conversation. Afterward, send an e‐mail to your boss thanking him or her for being so helpful, and also documenting the specific commitments made on both sides.

If you fail to document the conversation, there is a very good chance that, come performance review time, your boss will have changed how you're being measured and forgotten whatever promises were made.

2. Have your boss periodically assess your achievements vs metrics.

Throughout the year, send update e‐mails to your boss, based on your original "here's our agreement" e‐mail, documenting both how you've been tracking against the boss's expectations and the metrics by which those expectations are being measured.

These updates are essential because they force you to pay constant attention to exceeding the agreed‐upon metrics and keep you from being distracted by side issues. The updates also force your boss to explicitly state whether and how the metrics have changed in response to changes in business conditions.

If your boss changes the expectations or the metrics, set up another one‐on‐one--ostensibly to discuss the new expectations and metrics, but actually to make it clear that you still expect to be rewarded based on whatever work you've already accomplished.

This is important because bosses sometimes change employee metrics in order to avoid fulfilling commitments. For example, a sales manager might promise you a bonus if you beat your quota, and then raise your quota when you're about to beat it.

Example 1:

  • Boss: You'll now be measured on the profitability of the company rather than the amount of usable computer code you produce.
  • You: I understand the new metric. However, I've outperformed our agreed‐upon metrics for nine months now, so I expect to get a raise, regardless of our company's financial performance.

Example 2:

  • Boss: We're changing your sales quota so that it's fifty percent larger for the current year.
  • You: I will try my best to beat that goal! However, I expect my bonus to be paid based on my outperforming of the current quota.

3. Write the draft of your review (or at least provide "inputs")

Most bosses hate writing performance reviews. You've already made the job easier with your periodic reports, so it only makes sense for you to offer to take that burden off your boss's shoulders and onto your own.

Most bosses will be more than happy to let you write the draft. If your boss demurs, do it anyway, but send your draft as "inputs" to your performance review, which is much the same thing.

As you write the draft (or "inputs"), stick to the facts of how you've performed relative to metrics, as documented in your periodic reports. Do not characterize your work as "superlative" (or the like). Leave that part for your boss.

Include, as part of the package, the e‐mail documenting the agreement you made with your boss in Step 1. That way your boss will be aware not only that you exceeded expectations but that you remember what was promised you.

4. Use any "surprises" from your boss to extract new concessions.

With all the groundwork you've laid, your performance review will probably end up being a formality. You'll get a high rating, a pat on the back, and the reward you were promised.

However, even if you follow all the steps above, you may end up being blindsided. Examples:

  • "I can't give you that raise because there's just been a salary freeze."
  • "I can't send you to that trade convention in Hawaii because you didn't do [activity that's being mentioned now for the first time]."
  • "Your promotion is on hold because [situation based on corporate politics]."

If you hadn't laid the groundwork, all you would be able to say at this point would be, "Oh. OK." However, since you have laid the groundwork, you've now got your boss in a position where the boss has reneged on a commitment, which means the boss owes you.

As calmly as possible, restate the fact that you've exceeded the boss's expectations and that the boss made a specific promise to you in the event that you did so. Then ask the boss what he or she is going to do, like so:

  • "I understand that there's a salary freeze. How are you planning to get an exception in my case?"
  • "Since this is the first time I've heard of this goal, I'm confused about how you expected me to fulfill it. So, if you're not sending me to Hawaii, what are you going to do for me, since I exceeded the expectations that you set at the beginning of the year?"
  • "That sounds like a tough problem. Since the promotion is now outside your control, what about things that are inside your control, like extra "comp" days? Rather than the promotion, how about an extra week off this year?"

Do not let your boss wriggle out of a commitment without receiving some kind of concession in return. If you do, your boss will always find a way to get out of any commitments that he or she makes.

At the end of the performance review, repeat the same conversation that you had in Step 1 above.

5. Document the conversation.

As soon as your performance review is over, write a detailed email of what you heard and what agreements were made. Send to your boss, asking for a confirmation that it's an accurate reflection of the conversation.

Remember, in the world of negotiations (especially salary negotiations), nothing is real if it's not documented.

Now, you might be thinking that your boss will think poorly of you for being so picayune. (I was going to say "anal" but didn't want to offend.) Quite the contrary, bosses have a secret name for employees who don't use performance reviews to their advantage.

That word is "chump." Don't be one.