A few years back, I wrote about a shitty performance review experience at a former employer. Day Ones may remember this. Back then, I felt strongly that performance reviews were merely performance theater, with gaslighting as the main attraction. As the only Black guy in the office, that feeling was deeply ingrained in my soul.
Here is how it would happen: I'd outline my projects and share an assessment of my overall performance. My manager would probably agree with some of it, disagree with other parts, and then try to point out “growth areas” that were not within the scope of my responsibilities like getting involved in extracurricular office activities. Sigh. By the time my
op manager was finished, I’d leave with a pat on the back, a standard pay bump, or maybe even a promotion, which was more than likely a year overdue.
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I hated performance reviews, full stop. But as a manager who is now responsible for orchestrating this corporate theater for my own direct reports, I’ve realized how much I didn’t understand them.
This year, I had to give evaluations to both Black Karen and Mitch. Before doing so, first-time managers were required to sit in on a seminar about delivering feedback to coworkers. Within 15 minutes of the two-hour workshop, it hit me: Performance reviews are still bullshit, even when you’re the one giving them.
Performance review season is just a way to tell good performers and bad performers the same message: Step your game up.
Performance reviews are a formality designed to keep good employees encouraged and gently warn low-performing employees they’re skating on thin ice. Promotions or significant pay increases are afterthoughts. As a matter of fact, one section of the training instructed managers to find something a team member could do better and focus the performance review on that—even if they’ve exceeded expectations everywhere else. In the employer's mind, performance review SZN is just a way to tell good performers and bad performers the same message: Step your game up.
I logged out of the virtual course with little intention to follow it. The company wanted us to use it as guidance on what to do; I did the exact opposite.
Before my days of managing direct reports, around performance review season I only had money on my mind, like track three on Weezy’s best album. I cared little whether a manager thought my work was masterful or mid. I don’t think my direct reports are any different.
With Karen and Black Mitch, I decided to be as transparent as possible with not only what they could do better and what they did well, but also with how their pay bumps and new wages were decided upon. In other words, I decided not to gatekeep information and give them some idea of how the salary sausage was made.
I opened with money talks, word to Chris Tucker. Both Mitch and Black Karen were expecting more, which was reasonable. I told them I felt the same way about my own performance evaluation; my raise was as underwhelming as my tax return. I told them this because I feel strongly that performance reviews are a time to be vulnerable. As their manager, I had to set that tone by sharing my own experience.
Then I peeled back the curtain and relayed what I was told by my manager: The pay increases (or lack thereof) had less to do with their actual performance and were more reflective of an unpredictable economy and the company playing things safe. As for evaluations of their work, I only had minor recommendations since my direct reports have been killing it.
There’s an additional wrinkle to this performance review cycle: As a Black manager, I felt going through the theater of performance review would put me at risk. With Black Karen, I didn’t want to come off as kinfolk. I tried to get her more money because she was doing a great job, but my hands were tied. My main concern was her happiness and what more I could do to keep her on my team.
In the case of Mitch, we already had an awkward and difficult conversation this past quarter. Though we’re in a good place, I didn’t want to jeopardize that. He deserved more, so I let him know I’ll continue to pull for his much-deserved promotion until I’m empowered to make it happen.
This didn’t make either of them any happier, but they appreciated my honesty and vulnerability, I think. Performance reviews can be difficult to navigate but that’s only because companies are in denial—these things are more about compensation than anything else. Save the charades for game night.
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