Electronic Design

Preparing For Your Performance Review

One of the most difficult nonengineering chores that both managers and employees have to contend with is the job performance-review process. Employees feel at the mercy of the system and their managers, while managers usually don't have time to perform honest appraisals of their employees' accomplishments and professional future. Don't forget that getting ready for a performance review starts the very day that you're hired.

A performance review doesn't have to be worse than a trip to the dentist. In reality, you have more power than you might think in the performance-review process. While it may seem that you're only the recipient of all of the praise and criticism, without any control over its content, you can actually turn the tables to make the performance review a showcase for yourself and your achievements.

Employees' power comes from two primary sources. First, they are in the best position to know just what they did throughout the course of the year. Second, with the proper preparation, employees can present themselves in the most favorable light possible.

Start at the beginning. When you're first hired, an initial formal step is to establish yourself within a job category. It might be something like "Engineer III" or "Lead Engineer." Typically it will correspond to written job categories in the company's personnel manual.

Most companies, especially the larger ones, try to manage their human resources by creating categories of jobs and development steps within those categories. This job category usually has a broad set of defined responsibilities, a salary range, and a defined method of moving from lower steps to successively higher ones.

Employees should understand where their job category fits into the company, and where they fit within their job category. A part of this is to gage just how much one will be able to enlarge the responsibilities and salary within that category, and into other, higher categories.

But, a more important part is for employees to identify just what kinds of actions are required on their part in that category. For example, if your job category requires you to "lead in the design of new products," then you should be sure to establish such a role within the first few months of the review period.

Employees might also be ranked against one another in the company within the same job category. Therefore, if you pay close attention to what the company expects in your category, you could have an edge over others. While comparing people from different departments and different projects may seem difficult and unreasonable, it's often done as a way to manage human-resources programs and costs.

In many cases, an initial part of the formal review process is to establish what are commonly called "goals and objectives" for employees during the review period. These will probably be tailored more specifically to your role, and will be more detailed than those found in a job category definition.

Almost certainly, you will have inputs into the establishment of these goals and objectives. You may, in fact, be asked to draft them yourself. This is your first concrete opportunity to influence your performance review, so make sure you take advantage of it. Set your objectives in such a way that you will be able to tackle and succeed at the tasks that are important to the company. At the same time, don't set impossible standards for yourself. You want to be able to achieve challenging, yet reasonable standards.

What if you're new to the company, and don't have a good idea of what type of projects or tasks are appropriate for your position? That makes it a little tougher, but you should ask others who hold similar jobs within the company for advice on realistic objectives. If you have no external reference points, work through the list with your manager. But, be clear which objectives are entirely within your control, and which rely on others or outside circumstances.

Further, you have to understand the relationship between the results of your review and your opportunities for pay raises and advancement. Take the opportunity to ask if there's a direct relationship between your performance as reported on the performance review and any salary increases.

In some companies, there might exist a strong and direct relationship between the two. In other companies, managers can exercise broad discretion on pay, no matter what the performance. This is an upfront indication of how much control an employee's performance review grants them.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare for your review is to know when it comes due. Companies perform the review process in several different ways.

Some companies conduct it on your anniversary date, while other companies review all employees at the same time of year. Some perform the process annually, while others may review semi-annually or even quarterly. Still, no matter how many times your employer performs the review, you should be prepared well before the actual day of the review.

In many instances, your manager will not have taken the time throughout the year to track the details of your accomplishments. That provides a place for you to make a big difference in your review. By taking a few minutes to prepare an outline of your most significant accomplishments, you can offer to your boss a list that will make his or her job much easier in preparing the review.

Of course, not all employees track their accomplishments as well as they should. If you're required to do regular activity or project-status reports, you can find information about what you did from these. If you use a calendar like Microsoft Outlook, look over your meetings and tasks for your important activities and contributions. Otherwise, take whatever time you need to work through the year in your mind to come up with significant accomplishments. If you don't, you shouldn't expect your manager to do a good job of it for you.

When preparing a summary of your accomplishments, you should also create two separate versions. The first, intended for your manager, matches up your accomplishments with either your own defined goals and objects or the more general actions found in the company's job category descriptions. (Hint: if these don't match well, it might be time to look for a new job.) The second version is for your own reference, so that you can talk about your accomplishments without prompting. This version may contain bullets elaborating significant points that you can discuss during the review.

Additionally, you most likely will be asked to help develop new objectives for the coming year. Have a draft list already prepared. Take time to think about what you would like to accomplish in your job over the next year, and then narrow it down to some objective measures. Keep this list for the part of the review dealing with the new objectives. With luck, you can use this as a way to influence the direction of your job and develop new skills.

For many people, the actual performance review is stressful and becomes something to do only after they have run out of meetings to attend. But it really doesn't have to be like that. Instead, take the initiative to schedule your review with your manager. Schedule your review for a time when you won't be overwhelmed with your project work. Pick a time during the day when you know you will be intellectually sharp. Don't let your manager simply stop by your desk and invite you in "for a chat" on the spur of the moment.

Furthermore, if it's possible, schedule a conference room for your review, or go off-site. It's important that the discussion not be driven by those whose turf you're on. Plus, you should meet where the possibility of interruption is minimized, which typically isn't the office of one of the participants.

Take your own list of accomplishments into the review. Set the tone of the meeting by providing a summary of how you view your performance. Work down your list of significant achievements as if you're describing what you do on your job to a prospective employer on your resume. Don't exaggerate. If anyone can spot an exaggeration, it's your manager.

If your manager agrees with your assessment, then you will have made it easier for him or her to complete your review. If your manager doesn't agree, then the plot will become interesting.

But if you've done your homework on your accomplishments, you can likely demonstrate and document them better than your manager can refute them. If you and your manager have a disagreement on one or more of your accomplishments, you will be better prepared to defend your case.

Many such disagreements might not result from the work that you performed, but rather from what that work meant for the project. If you suspect that there may be such disagreements, make certain that you will be able to detail just how your accomplishments contributed to the project's goals.

In addition, you should take the lead in resolving such disagreements amicably. After all, your manager may have legitimate issues, and you should give him or her the benefit of the doubt when possible.

The performance review itself may not be the only way that your manager and your company assesses your performance. An increasing trend in high-tech companies is to conduct some form of what is often called the "360 review." This type of review formally or informally solicits comments and other input on your performance from colleagues, subordinates, and other managers in order to get a better overall view of your performance.

It's a good idea to find out if your company, and your individual manager, reviews in this manner. While it's always critical to be professional in your dealings with those around you at work, the prospect of a 360 review should be on your mind as you interact. You may work well with others in your department. But if you tend to throw design changes over the wall to manufacturing, then be prepared to receive criticism from that side.

Above all, if you were only on the receiving end of the performance review, it would defeat it's own purpose. It's an opportunity for you to objectively review your own performance, and assess your strengths and weaknesses. This serves two purposes.

First, it allows you to step back and determine if you're satisfying your own standards of performance. If you're not living up to what you think you're capable of doing, it's best to admit it to yourself prior to your review. Your manager probably already knows this, and you should have a plan for addressing it before you're asked.

Second, the review helps you determine if your priorities are in sync with your manager's and the company as a whole. If you feel that you have done a solid job, while your manager points out shortcomings in areas you thought were unimportant, then it's time to reassess either your priorities, or your future prospects with the company.

Of course, even a fine review may not mean that you're going to get a fine pay raise. Some employers give a standard percentage to all, regardless of individual performance. Other employers remove the salary increase from the performance-review process, and offer the bigger raises to those skills more in demand. Still, by taking control of your own review, you not only reduce the stress in the process, but also could benefit yourself through raises and promotions.

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