Most people roll their eyes when it comes time for performance reviews. This is because the review is, by nature, an uncomfortable and contrived process. In most companies, reviews happen once or twice a year, and during this time, every employee is forced to sit in a room with his boss and talk turkey about how he’s progressed and how he’s screwed up.
Performance review documentation is notorious for being generic and vague, complete with ratings that are totally subjective and impossible to measure. Unfortunately, many reviews also take place in a vacuum: the items discussed are often not mentioned again until the next review.
As a result, many people perceive reviews as yet another bureaucratic exercise that wastes valuable time and need not be taken seriously. However, for all its flaws, the performance review is the only door to promotion inside much of the business world, so you must take advantage of it if you want to get ahead.
Preparing for the Big Day
If you don’t care about your review, no one else will. The worst thing you can do for your career is to go through the process passively. Whether your company’s review cycle takes place annually or bi-annually, your preparation should typically start weeks before. Think of your review as an opportunity to sell your manager on your value to the company.
You’ll have a great head start if you’ve mapped out clear career goals and you and your boss have discussed them on an ongoing basis. Take your last review out of the file cabinet and dust it off. Look at the goals and/or action steps outlined last time around and gather facts to support how you’ve progressed in each area.
Brainstorm concrete examples that illustrate outstanding performance and practice communicating them so they’re on the tip of your tongue. Then, make a list of all of the things you would like to cover in the review conversation, independent of your manager’s agenda. Your objectives will probably include soliciting feedback on your progress, identifying new goals and growth opportunities and hammering out a long-term promotion plan. This last item is particularly important. While you can’t reasonably expect to be promoted after every review, you should at least leave with an understanding of where your current responsibilities are leading.
When it comes time for the actual review, make sure your boss gives it to you. This may sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how many companies will allow managers to get away with skipping the review process entirely. After all, bosses are busy and employee reviews are not on the top of their list of priorities. Remember, though, that it’s your right to request a timely appraisal. During the meeting itself, maintain a good balance between listening to what your manager has to say and playing an active role in the conversation.
Just because your boss offers constructive criticism doesn’t mean you won’t get a promotion or raise, so keep your defensiveness to a minimum. Even though a casual chitchat session might be more comfortable and fun than a serious conversation about your career aspirations, insist on getting through your objectives for the meeting.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your boss’s feedback and make sure you read over your written review carefully before signing it. Once the cycle is complete, your manager might be perfectly happy to forget about your performance for the next five or eleven months. Don’t let her. Be proactive about setting up regular meetings to review your progress, address potential problems and incorporate new responsibilities and priorities into the master plan. If you keep the lines of communication open, nothing that comes up in your next review will be a surprise. Who knows, maybe you’ll even look forward to it!
Asking for a Raise
If you are going to ask your boss for a raise, make sure you have a good reason. And needing the money doesn’t count. Your company doesn’t care if you are drowning in student loans, can’t make your rent or have to finance a wedding this year. Like everything else in the business world, the money you get paid is all about the value you add to the company.
Before you sit down with your manager, you’ll want to be prepared with a list of contributions that have positively impacted the bottom line. As you’re putting together your case, be hard on yourself. Look at the situation from your company’s point of view. Have you honestly acquired such valuable skills, performed at such a high level and exceeded expectations to such a degree that your company should shell out more assets to keep you?
You also have to look at the big picture. Check out compensation surveys like the National Compensation Survey by the U.S. Department of Labor or Web sites like Salary.com to determine how your salary stacks up to what other local employees in your position are making. Don’t forget to take into account other financial incentives you may receive from your company, including bonuses, stock options, insurance packages, 401k contributions and tuition reimbursement.
Of course, you also have to get real and evaluate your request in the context of the current economic conditions, your company’s financial status and internal policies regarding raises. In today’s business climate particularly, many companies are foregoing merit increases or are only issuing them at a certain time of year. Some organizations also have fixed salary ranges, or grades, that prevent managers from increasing compensation beyond the amount pre-determined by your level or title. Still others place the authority to decide matters of compensation in the hands of a few individuals – and your boss may not be one of them. You’ll save yourself a lot of aggravation if you find out about such things ahead of time.
What is a good time to ask for a raise? Coming off a strong performance review in which your boss acknowledged your accomplishments is a good bet because he will probably be expecting you to broach the subject of money. If you have just taken on a new role or your management has raised the bar for your performance, it is perfectly legitimate to ask for an appointment to discuss “compensation commensurate with new responsibilities.”
When scheduling the meeting, pick a time when your boss’s stress level and workload are as manageable as possible and tell him what you want to talk about so he’s prepared. An informal setting like lunch often works best because it allows you to relate to your manager on a personal level. Before you meet face to face, decide on a number that you’d be satisfied with and think about how you’ll respond if you don’t get it. You also may want to practice your tone on a family member or friend prior to the meeting, because there is a fine line separating the assertive/sincere and boastful/arrogant approaches.
Now, on to the actual “raise discussion.” If you’re underpaid and you know it, don’t complain. Acting bitter or angry will only put your manager on the defensive. Instead, remain calm, positive and professional. Tell your boss how much you enjoy working at the company. Talk about your performance in a factual manner and provide concrete examples of how you add value to the organization. When it comes time to pop the question, use the word compensation rather than raise or money.
In the event that your boss declines your raise, don’t close your ears to the rest of the discussion. She may be willing to offer you other perks instead, like extra vacation time, flexible hours or a nice dinner with your significant other on the company. These concessions may not be as valuable as cold cash, but they can come in handy when you’re struggling to afford the good life outside of work.
Despite your best efforts, you may not get the compensation you’ve earned. This is not an unusual scenario, as often the only way to get a serious pay increase is to switch to a new position. At this point, you must decide if you are willing to trade more money for your current positive work experience. If the answer is yes, swallow your negativity for the time being and ask your boss what you need to do to receive an increase and if it’s possible to revisit the issue in a few months.
Do not give an ultimatum unless you are prepared to walk out the door right then and there. Even if you have another job offer in hand that pays more, you cannot assume that your manager will make a counteroffer.
Your boss may tell you that she would like to give you a raise, but her hands are tied. If this is the case, ask her if the two of you can schedule a meeting with the higher-up responsible for the decision. Do not go over her head without her knowledge and make sure she is kept on the loop on all matters concerning your compensation.
Raise discussions are never easy for either party, and if your boss is the passive-aggressive type, he may tell you what you want to hear simply to get you out of his office. Make sure that you follow up appropriately on any verbal promises he makes, and if possible, secure an effective date for your increase. The issue is not closed until you see the change on your paycheck.
Alexandra Levit worked for a Fortune 500 software company and an international public relations firm before starting Inspiration @Work, an independent marketing communications business. She’s the author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World (Career Press 2004). This excerpt was reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THEY DON’T TEACH CORPORATE IN COLLEGE © 2004 Alexandra Levit. Published by Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. All rights reserved.