Three Surprises

I’m two months into my 18th year at Microsoft, and I still really enjoy it – most of the time at least. My job is great, I work on amazing technology, and with people smarter than you can imagine. But, for two months or so every year, the dreaded MS review monster comes out from the magic curtain of HR and freaks out employees across the company. I’m not a fan of the system, but to me, it’s the tax I pay to get to state the second sentence of this paragraph. I won’t rehash the forced curve stack rank story, but I will share one bit of advice.

It doesn’t matter how messed up the system is – review ratings should never be a surprise.

Managers may say, “but I didn’t know they were getting this rating until review time” – to which I’d say, “baloney” (actually, something stronger, but this blog is rated PG). As a manager, if you work in a stack rank system, you always need an idea of where your employees line up. When I was a manager, I made sure my team leads were stack ranked monthly. If you do it that often, it doesn’t take that long, and you can work on setting expectations throughout the year. It’s common sense, and common courtesy.

I thought I’d share (all true experiences) a few‘surprises’ from my history at Microsoft as examples. I’ve generalized the rankings for consistency where appropriate. The first surprise goes like this:

“Alex” worked his butt off all year. His team enjoyed working with him, and he finished several projects that many of his peers admired. He was quiet, but determined and proud of the work he accomplished.

At his review, he received a rating of ‘underperformed’. Alex was in shock and took the next week off to make sense of it. His manager told him that he accomplished a lot, but that he did a lot of the “wrong” work, and that his work quality was poor. This was the first time he had heard this feedback.

In this case, both Alex and his manager blew it (yes, I’m giving Alex some blame too). His manager bears the bigger portion of blame for not giving him feedback throughout the year, but Alex needed to ‘manage up’ as well and ask his boss for feedback. Alex left the company soon after and his now near the executive level at another software company.

“Beth” was almost a celebrity on her team. She had a lot of visibility around the company, and her team was excited to have her as a team member. She was one of those people who made everyone around her a strong performer, and her teammates heaped praise on her as part of the review process. She put a ton of effort into crafting performance goals that would show her value on the team, and even presented them to the Vice President of her division for feedback and approval. Her manager gave her feedback throughout the year that she was doing well…and then she got an ‘underperformed’ on her review. Both Beth and her manager were shocked! You see, at Beth’s level, her skip level manager expected something different from her. There was no warning or feedback before this.

Beth quit the team immediately and found another job at Microsoft.

In this case, I put the majority of the blame on Beth’s manager (for not looping in his manager earlier), but one thing I’ve learned at MS, at least, is that you always want to put at least a little effort into knowing your management chain and knowing what they expect of you.

The last surprise is a first hand experience – it’s the only time I’ve ever surprised an employee at review time. At this time, we had a review system that went in half-point increments from 2.5-5.0. Most employees received 3.0 or 3.5 ratings. A 2.5 meant your job was at risk, and 4.5 and 5.0 ratings were reserved for (roughly) the top 1% and .01% respectively. The conversation went like this…

“Evan – you’ve done a great job this year. You’ve built a great team, done some fantastic technical work, and helped build a strategy for the team…but as I look at what your peers have done, and what the rating systems dictate, I can’t justify giving you a 4.0 rating…

<I watch Evan’s eyes as they go from confused, to hurt…and then, just has his eyes get a twinge of Hulk rage in them, I continue…>

So, based on what you accomplished and how you got it done, I have no option other than to give you a 4.5 rating.

Yes – it was a bit mean, but given the nature of the surprise, Evan was extremely happy. He’s still at MS, and has grown into a major leader in his division.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only type of surprise that should ever happen with an employee review (just be careful of the timing on your delivery :} ).


  1. I agree with the ‘no surprises’ idea, but performance reviews in general do way more harm than good. And the idea of grading employees on a curve – why wouldn’t you have intended to hire only really great people? Why would you have hired any that didn’t have the best possible attitude and mindset, and given them the time and support they need to make their maximum contribution? I’ve never understood this corporate idea that there needs to be some kind of ‘competition’ among employees.

    And I say this as someone who has pretty much always received the top rating throughout her career. The system actually works well for me personally. But we should be spending our energy shortening the feedback loop not only for our software quality, but for our teammates to be able to improve individually and together.

  2. I agree completely. I’m currently losing sleep (literally) over a review rating a peer of mine is getting, and how the system worked against them. Up until recently, the ‘quota’ system wasn’t as bad. Believe it or not, it was worse last year…

    But I’m probably foreshadowing an upcoming post too much now, so I’ll leave it at that.

  3. Thanks for writing this article on reviews and “surprises” that has something for managers and employees.

    While I read your posts mostly from an employee perspective, I’ve known some managers that could really use this type of guidance, especially in QA. I hope you continue writing posts that are helpful for managers (and employees).

    Beth’s case resonates strongly with me, not because of her surprise but because she tried to figure out what would be expected of her from management. Whenever I’ve tried to do this, I’ve always found it worth my time and it has always been appreciated.

  4. Imagine if you found your dream position in Microsoft. Something that you were the most passionate of any job at Microsoft and would give everything to make it the best product for customers. Consider that everyone wanted you on the team. And then realize that everyone in your band was a superstar – producing more, driving ideas better, collaborating with partners like rock stars. And then imagine a forced curve to the bottom of the curve. Dreams shot, passion gone, realization that the dream could not be sustained and popping the enthusiasm of the dream job like the hindenburg crash

    • All, unfortunately true – in theory at least. But save those thoughts for comments when I actually write about the curve, and not the message.

  5. I’ve been on the end of that curve before. I totally agree that manager and worker need to work together on communication and review processes. Unfortunately I recently fell through a hole in the review process. The company I was working for only mandated reviews once a year. I worked two different projects for two different managers in one year, and the earlier one I had moved all I could to see that project succeed, but in the end it was the later manager tasked with reviewing me.

    I actually might have accepted this if it were not for the fact that when I saw my written review this past April, there were some things identified which I felt were important issues that needed to be addressed. Then I heard generally that the review had been sat on since January and immediately alerts started going off in my head.

    Could I have done more there? Maybe. But I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t a fit for the culture of that team which hardly communicated at all about anything of substance, with everyone going off into their own little bunker to do their perceived tasking.

    Personally, up until that point I was working hard to provide and show my value to the company, but when it became clear that for some reason I would be unable to achieve that which I felt was necessary to succeed, then it was time to move on, for me.

    Could I have done more to be more proactive in this area? Yeah I could have, I’m partially culpable in this case, and it is something I’ll remember the rest of my life, but at some point, a manager has to make himself available to his employees too. I don’t know if you run into that sort of problem at MS, but it’s ultimately what compelled me it was time to move elsewhere. I just wasn’t a fit on this particular team.

  6. I like the Army’s HR system in which you shall not receive derogatory ratings unless you have documentation to back it up, meaning counselings. Also, newer employees get additional counseling during their first years with special evaluations with added feedback.

    And yes, the military does go thru its periods that people get layed off, I’m thinking of after the first Gulf War in the 90s.

    HR and evaluations is quite an art in reflecting true value without demoralizing people. That’s why good managers are so important.

  7. Alan, do you have thoughts on the “I had ‘n’ managers this year”, where ‘n’ >2, situation? I hear about this a lot, and the result at review time is usually not good.

    • My thought is that it almost always sucks for the employee – especially at lower levels. More senior employees tend (imo) to get the benefit of the doubt and often get middle-of-the-packed regardless of whether they’re fire-fodder or a star.

      As I think about it – the manager shuffle has a bigger effect on promotion velocity than actual curve ranking. Both suffer, but I rarely see a manager willing to promote someone who’s only worked for them for a few months – and when we expect employees at lower levels to move up or out, it can have a long lating effect.


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