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It’s performance review time (groan)

If you can’t avoid the dreaded annual ritual, here’s how to get through it

by Chemjobber
October 16, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 41

Cartoon people hold up scorecards.
Credit: Shutterstock

At a conference recently, I overheard two non-U.S. scientists grumbling about annual performance reviews. Coming from a different culture, they found it to be awkward, embarrassing, and unnatural to list their accomplishments for the year. The senior scientist was consoling the junior scientist and offering her tips on how to deal with this dreaded ritual.

Let’s be honest: We all hate performance reviews, no matter what country we’re from. They’re often unfair and painful to endure. Some companies seem to rely on self-evaluations to help make decisions about raises, promotions, and other forms of advancement, and I think that was what was giving the junior scientist fits.

Few people enjoy writing their own report card. “I did great this year!” can seem self-serving, especially for those not prone to bragging. People hate answering the question, “What’s your biggest weakness?” and writing it down can make it seem more permanent.

In one particularly painful interaction, a supervisor wrote the dreaded “below average” on my performance review. I think that person was wrong in their evaluations of my work and my abilities, but those words still sting years later. Tattooing the words on the back of my hand might have been less painful than seeing them on a piece of paper.

By contrast, deep satisfaction can come from a fantastic review. There is nothing quite like reading, “You have grown into someone that I can trust and rely on for important projects.” The long days of running reactions and poring over data can culminate in great scientific achievements, but it is praise from a boss—and maybe even a raise—that often provides lasting satisfaction for an employee. It’s not a coincidence that my father keeps his “Engineer of the Year” plaque from 20 years ago hanging in his study.

Some employers, especially the more progressive ones, have decided that annual performance reviews are a bad idea and have done away with them or introduced other means of evaluating workers. At other companies, performance reviews are low priority and fall by the wayside. For the rest of us, what can we do to prepare for review time?

I recommend routinely documenting your work and your best accomplishments. If you’re inclined to be modest, it’s probably best to have coworkers remind you of your good work in return for feedback from you.

The performance review represents how your company views you and your work. Hopefully, it’s a good perception and helps initiate a conversation about what the company sees for your future and how that plan compares with your goals.

A less-than-positive review is harder to deal with. Really listening to what your supervisor is saying and being frank with yourself is important and difficult. Our defense mechanisms—like sarcasm and anger—are best put aside. If you disagree with the evaluation, speak up. Just do it as professionally as possible.

Because evaluation of your work is a human endeavor and subject to biases, no matter how standardized and fair the process, a performance review may not be significantly more accurate than anyone else’s perception of your work.

The work we do as chemists is vital to our professional identities. So we shouldn’t allow ourselves to cling too tightly to the idea that a performance review is the ultimate reflection of who we are as chemical professionals; it is one imperfect window into how others see us.


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