10 Ways To Make Your Performance Review Pay Off — Even In A Recession

November 13th, 2008

It’s performance review season again! That means it’s time to sit down with your boss to review your 2008 accomplishments and find out if you’re going to take home more moolah in 2009.

This year, you may be feeling even more cynical about your performance review prospects than usual. You know how bosses always blame piddly raises and uninspiring bonuses on budget constraints (“If it were up to me, I’d give you a huge bonus!”)? Well, this year they will almost definitely be telling the truth.

But recent studies show that most companies are still planning to give raises in 2009 — approximately 3.5%  on average.  The bad news is that companies are also planning to lay workers off and raise employee contributions for health care.

So this year, your performance review represents more than just an opportunity to justify that 3.5% raise. It’s your chance to document your value to the company, strengthen your internal brand, and improve your chances of staying employed in 2009 (if that’s the sort of thing you’re into).

Yes, your performance review is really a marketing campaign. While good performance is no guarantee of keeping your job, you’re far likelier to keep those paychecks coming (and even make more money) if you can demonstrate how much the company and your manager would suffer without you around.

So whether you’re looking for a salary bump, a sweet bonus, or just a little extra insurance against a pink slip in 2009; here are some helpful tips for making your performance review pay off in the cold, hard world of late-2008 Corporate America.

1. Understand How The System Works — Every company is different when it comes to managing the performance review process. You can’t work the system until you know exactly who makes the decisions, when they’re made, and what factors are considered most critical. At some companies, salary and bonus numbers are set even before performance review meetings are scheduled. In that case, you’ll have to do some guerilla internal marketing well before your review date.

2. Understand Your Manager’s Point of View — Make your boss your best friend during performance review time. Even if many of the big decisions are made higher up on the corporate ladder, your boss probably wields significant power over your personal circumstances. He may not control whether layoffs will happen, but he probably has some say over who will be impacted. He may not decide on the amount of the department’s bonus pool, but he probably has power over how it gets divvied up. Understand your manager’s priorities and what’s keeping him up at night. Then focus on demonstrating how you make his work life easier and earn your keep.

3. Do Your Homework — Have you been keeping careful track of all of your accomplishments this year? If not, it’s time to spend a few hours digging through your files to assemble an impressive list of your greatest hits in 2008. Don’t expect your manager to remember all of your accomplishments when year-end rolls around. You have to sell yourself and your work in your performance review. This is no time to be humble or shy.

4. Think Like A Marketer — The key to great marketing is understanding your customers and demonstrating how your products/services make their lives better.  So be sure to frame all of your accomplishments to show the tangible benefits for your company and your manager.  Make sure you have a clear sense of where priorities lie today (especially if they have shifted since you set your annual goals). How can you build your personal brand internally (for more about personal brands, check out Dan Schawbel’s awesome blog) so that your manager feels like she can’t live without you?

5. Use Numbers And Examples — You can’t rely on generalities. Cite numbers and evidence wherever you can. How much money did you save the company? How many customers wrote you complimentary emails? Everybody claims greatness in their performance reviews. But how many can prove it?

6. Tell A Good Story — If you don’t have hard numbers, try to come up with some compelling stories about those times that you went the extra mile to save the day.  Did you pull an all-nighter to meet the deadline? Did you come up with a creative idea that wowed the CEO? Did you rework a process to save your boss hours every week? In a good performance review story, you’re the hero who rescues the company from the dragon. Talk about a great personal brand! Just don’t get too creative and pull a James Frey — your boss might just respond by pulling an Oprah when he finds out.

7. Don’t Be Defensive — Be prepared to hear criticism during your performance review.  It’s part of your manager’s job to identify areas where you can improve. So don’t get defensive and snappish if your boss dares to point out that you’re not perfect. In fact, you should try to anticipate potential critiques — and prepare professional counterpoints if appropriate — before you walk in that door. Embrace any criticism that is mild and easily addressed (“Why yes, my files are a bit messy. How insightful! I will have them tidy and color-coded by 5PM.”) Even if you get blindsided by comments that seem unfair, take a deep breath and resist the urge to snap. Ask for clarification. Then, if you still disagree, make your case calmly and rationally.

8. Deliver An “October Surprise” — Like Janet Jackson, most managers want to know: “What have you done for me lately?” Follow the example of those wily politicoes and announce a major score right before performance reviews. In politics, an “October Surprise” is a bit of good news that conveniently comes out just before the election.  Is there a deal you can close or a brilliant idea you can propose at just the right moment?

9. Show Some Attitude – Managers are only human. They’d rather give the biggest raise or bonus to somebody they like. Work shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but never underestimate the value of being likable. Show that you’ve got a positive attitude and a can-do spirit (even if you have to fake it). That doesn’t mean you have to kiss boss butt, but it probably couldn’t hurt.

10. Get Creative — So what happens when you wow your manager with your accomplishments and brilliance, but there’s still no budget for the raise or bonus you deserve? Try a little creative negotiation. Are there perks you can ask for that won’t cost your company a lot of cash? If your manager loves you but can’t show you the money, leverage her guilt and goodwill to ask for telecommuting privileges, flexible hours, or extra vacation days. A fat raise is nice, but a little extra flexibility could be worth much more in the long run if it helps you improve your work/life balance.

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I think being creative and not being defensive are the strongest points.

Being defensive is a trap a lot of people fall into. Or they worry that something they propose might be too off the wall.

Mark McClure

re #10 – I liked this “get creative” idea from UK-based Simon Stapleton:

“Ask your boss “What can I do to make you more successful?”

(See #5 on his list)

Pamela Skillings

Thanks for the great comments! And thanks for the link to Simon Stapleton’s article too. I like his questions — and you don’t have to wait to ask them until performance review time.


great post! (from a corporate worker that just took the plunge into freedom)

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