When it comes to working in corporate settings, there’s just about nothing I despise more than employee performance reviews. They’re right up there with forced cheeriness, meetings that could’ve been emails, and emails that should’ve remained drafts. Performance reviews are some weird gumbo of patronizing, self-importance, and debate — and when you’re Black, they can have an especially shitty aftertaste.
In theory, they make sense: reviews give the company and its employees a means to assess successes and areas for improvement on an individual level. But the problem begins with the initial self-assessment, which is often composed of ambiguous, open-ended questions that all but beg for disparities between your sense of your performance and your manager’s. It’s the perfect opportunity for shady or just plain incompetent supervisors to gaslight their subordinates.
At my last job, we’d do these performance pit stops quarterly. Four times a year, I’d log onto a drab online HR portal and pull up a list of generalized questions about my work for the company in the past three months. My former manager, Dean, would complete the same form. We’d each get the other person’s notes, then sit down at this long-ass table in a conference room — just the two of us — to compare and discuss the takes. What could go wrong, right?
Ever speak with an older White manager who doesn’t have many Black friends, and it shows? That was Dean. And as a result, you could just hear the uneasiness in his voice when he spoke to me, which made these conversations all the more awkward. Meanwhile, I’d be anxious too; no one enjoys being judged right to their face, especially when the fate of your job or salary could be on the line.
My manager would complete the same form. We’d each get the other person’s notes, then sit down at this long-ass table in a conference room — just the two of us — to compare and discuss the takes. What could go wrong?
There are so many factors that come into play in these weird conversations. Are Dean’s observations about my work accurate? Do they align with how I feel I’ve been doing? Are his criticisms actually valid? Just how hard do I plead my case in the event of a disagreement? And, ultimately, do I deserve more money or nah?
In one particular review, Dean and I read our answers aloud. Once I finished a response about my professional development, he proceeded to managersplain what I’d written: “I saw that you put this down, but I think you meant to say this.” Turns out, my review score was recorded before we actually sat down to meet. I didn’t find that professional at all — why not use the opportunity to let me clarify my own shit before making assumptions?
But the real issue was that it seemed like he wasn’t privy to my recent work at all. He fixated on things I’d done many months prior to the period at hand, with next to no acknowledgement of my more recent projects. Was he paying attention to my contributions at all? Who knows. There’s no way he could’ve confused me with someone else — I mean, I am the only Black guy at the office, after all. For a moment, it even made me second-guess my own assessment.
His review was just inaccurate. I’d been bringing all these new ideas and shit, heading campaign launches, securing partnerships. Where was the feedback on that? In his evaluation, he actually had the nerve to note that I didn’t participate in some of the afterwork extracurricular activities. Look, I’m not getting paid to play soccer against other companies. No offense, but our company’s soccer team sucked — they lost every single game.
It got a little bit heated. But I listened to my intuition, voiced my opinion, and outlined all of the projects and successes he’d overlooked or (more likely) attributed to someone else. Despite the doubts and negative bullshit I’d constantly think about, I knew that my wins far outweighed my losses. So I asked for a raise — and I’m glad I did. Had I just nodded along to what Dean said, there’s no way I would’ve got that bump in pay.
Those reviews can be even more stressful when you’ve got performance anxiety. I’ve since moved on from reporting to Dean; I’m just a few months into a job at a whole new company. Which made my first performance review a little tricky because, well, I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing for the first month and a half. Although my co-workers assured me that my learning curve was typical for new hires, I was still worried that my productivity might be in question.
Before completing my review, I consulted with a senior supervisor named Ron, a cool-as-hell Mexican dude who’s an OG at the company. “This is your opportunity to voice the support that you need — materials, software, workshops, training, whatever,” he advised. “Explain the early things you’ve implemented, your plans for the next period, and how you can be set up for success. Then there’s mutual accountability.” It was a type of empowerment that I’d rarely experienced in past positions, which felt great! But we’ll see if everyone else is as supportive.
The grading scale for the review categories runs from zero (do you even have a pulse?) to five (certified overachiever). Once I filed my review, HR helped to keep things in perspective: “Everybody’s probably going to get some threes, don’t be offended.” In my mind, I’d love to have a fucking three (which I ended up landing across the board). At this early stage, I’d gladly be the brother who’s meeting expectations. Anything else is just icing on the cake — or hot sauce on some bland-ass gumbo.