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It’s Bonus Time

Sometime within the next couple weeks your bonus pay out will arrive. You’ve had your performance review (hopefully) and gotten some indication about how you were rated. In spite of a solid review, many of you will be disappointed with the actual chunk of change you receive. You may feel that your rating and/or bonus are unfair. What can you do?

The short answer is: not much. Most companies with 300 people or more have a very prescribed process that every employee is put through. You submit a self assessment about how well you met your goals, your boss does her evaluation of you, the two of you have a conversation, the boss submits all the ratings and paperwork to HR and then each manager divvies up the pot in a calibration session. Calibration is a fancy word for distributing the pool of money in some rational way amongst the whole team. That could result in you getting less cash even though you had good ratings. The biggest bonuses go to those who performed exceptionally or are a flight risk. It’s not a bad process. It really is intended to be fair and truly reward good performance. But once the die is cast there is usually no recourse.

The time to contest a review is during the conversation…near the start of this process. Here are some useful tips. I can’t promise you will get what you want.

  • When you are writing up your self assessment be as factually detailed as possible. List all the activities pertaining to the goal BUT leave out any descriptors. “Completed the project ahead of deadline for an additional 100K savings” rather than “Completed the project in record time and exceeded savings expectations”. Leave the evaluation to your boss. The facts are useful because she probably doesn’t remember what happened in March and needs to be reminded. Don’t expect your boss to just know everything you did. Put it in writing.
  • While we are on the topic, don’t take credit for stuff that a whole team of people accomplished. If you were one of six people who worked on something make that clear in your review. If you had oversight for that team, say that and then describe what the team achieved. Bosses don’t appreciate when you take credit for others’ work.
  • During the review conversation your boss will usually start with all the good news. Strong in these areas, high grades for those achievements, yadda yadda. You will enjoy hearing those things but you will be waiting for the bad stuff. Which will certainly come…even if it is small. When your boss disagrees with your assessment of how completed a goal is, provide additional information. If she still has a different point of view ask her what 100% would look like. Ask all your questions at this point. Raise all your objections. She may or may not change her mind…usually not. She is more likely to change if she has additional facts that she didn’t know before.
  • Then you will get to the part of the conversation about your behaviors; the good and the bad. You will have many strengths but there are always things that you could do better. This is a tricky part of the discussion. You may have rated yourself as exceeding expectations when it comes to collaboration but your boss doesn’t see it that way. Hopefully she will give you examples of times when you blew it. If not, ask for the specifics. She will also have some feedback from others. Never forget that all year long people are coming up to your boss and saying, “Geez, Paolo is great to work with. He really helped the team stay focused” or “I don’t think we’ll be asking Jana to make any more presentations to our group. She was so combative when people challenged her.” She is putting this feedback together with her own experience of you and it will have weight at evaluation time. There are only two good ways to respond to more critical feedback. “Thank you for telling me this. I will really have to think about how to improve in this area.” Or “I’m surprised (or disappointed) to receive this feedback. Please tell me more so that I can fully understand the issue so that I can work hard to improve in this area.” Under no circumstances should you get defensive at this point. You will only make it worse.
  • If the critical feedback you are hearing is completely bat shit (and you trust that you are not being defensive) and/or coming from a vindictive place you do have some options. If your boss is a bit whacked you ought to anticipate this moment and be prepared to say, “I need you to give me multiple examples of these behaviors. Please tell me about times you observed this.” Take detailed/verbatim notes while she is talking. If it is really out in left field she will be hard pressed to describe specifics. When she is done say, “You know, I really see things differently and I would like to have another discussion about this before you finalize my review. I want to get some additional feedback from those people you say I upset so I would like to get our HR business partner in the loop. Would you mind if we got additional input?” Again, 50-50 outcome. But if your boss is out to hurt you bring in a third party early. But only do this if, in fact, there is something way off about her assessment.
  • Once the conversation has concluded and the documents are completed and submitted there isn’t much you can do. You may have hoped that the evaluation would add up to an exceeds but your boss may give you a meets expectations. Bonuses are calculated from those ratings. Best to air your disagreements during the review discussion before everything is a done deal.

If you are bummed by your bonus (or review) join the crowd. When all else fails find out what it takes to get an A from your boss. Have her spell it out or ask those who got an A. If you don’t feel too much like a poseur and you could pull it off genuinely, follow the script. But if your approach is different or you think the expectations are unreasonable then have some conversations during the goal setting process…which is taking place right about now. Really try to nail down what it will take to get higher ratings this year. If there is a big gap between your boss’ demands and what is humanly possible then it’s time for you to be thinking about your own Plan B. You don’t want to be in this same spot next year.

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