Inside Experts: Getting the most out of a performance review

How to keep subjectivity and frustration out of the review process

It’s performance review time! Time for your boss to go on the record about how well he or she thinks you are doing your job. 

Corporate performance review programs set objectives and use metrics to measure your progress towards fulfilling the objectives. Setting objectives and measuring results avoids subjectivity.  Performance reviews can nevertheless leave your final rating to your boss’s personal discretion.

To begin, I would just listen. I would ask for an example or examples of what had led my boss to make the criticism, if he or she hadn’t said so already. At the end of the conversation, I would tell my boss I needed time to think the criticism over before responding. I would then genuinely think it over. There may be something to the criticism, and I would need time to get over the initial upset before I could accept it. Under no circumstances would I attempt to challenge the criticism in the midst of the performance review.    

We in-house lawyers have a particularly tough time dealing with performance reviews. Lawyers are taught to believe that life is a meritocracy. Thinking that life is a meritocracy is slightly less naïve than believing only the first 100 callers will get the two-for-one deal on the ginsu knives. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

If the amount of bonus money being given is the real determinant of the performance rating, fine, then that’s the purpose, and you shouldn’t confuse the review with whether you are doing good work. I would never consider an upcoming performance review as the time to ask for a raise. Why, you ask? A couple of reasons: I don’t believe life is a meritocracy (see above); tactically, I don’t necessarily want to tie my asking with job performance; the timing may not be right.

As you might guess, performance reviews began in the early 20th century and were intended to manage semi-skilled workers in a manufacturing environment. Over the years, the question of whether performance reviews do more harm than good has been heavily debated. Without renewing the debate here, I will simply point out that lawyers have never been assembly line workers producing X number of widgets a day.

I am sure there are coaches in other sports in other parts of the world who have said the same thing. 

I’m not saying that lawyers are somehow above being judged. I’m saying that if legal departments are going to evaluate in-house lawyers, there is no point unless the evaluations make the lawyers better lawyers and accurately recognize effective in-house legal work. 

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Eric Esperne

Eric Esperne is counsel for Dell Services and is located in Canton, Mass. He has more than 15 years experience as in-house counsel for government,...

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