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 :} ).