How do you handle telling your directs their annual review scores when the scores you gave were forcibly reduced by your boss in order to meet a quota and your directs know it and say so?

My company allows four scores:

* Not good enough: fix or be removed
* Did your job well
* Did more than your job sometimes
* Outstanding - goes above and beyond on everything

My company limits each director to a limited number of people who are allowed to receive scores above "does his job well." Several of my directs may regularly and in measurable ways exceed the performance expectations I placed on them at the beginning of the year.

* They deliver early
* The deliver more than I asked for
* They do things I didn't ask for that are wonderful
* They volunteer when I line everyone up and ask for someone to step forward for "the duty"

I might submit several with annual reviews set to "Did more than your job sometimes." My boss will then dispute these scores with me and ask for hard evidence. I will display that evidence, and then be told that some other department also needs to give their top performers higher scores, and I will be asked to pick which of my directs gets a higher score and give the rest the average score.

Thus, my directs work all year long knowing that no matter how hard they try, no matter what they do, they have only a 12% chance of getting anything other than the middle of the road score.

The scores determine pay raise levels.

Every year I face this, and every year I feel like a fail to address the frustration and anger that they vent at the company for taking performance they know was plenty for a higher score and reducing it to make artificial quotas to prevent bad managers from giving all of their people the highest score.

BTW, many people talk about their scores, and no one has ever received the highest rating, presumably because it consumes more headcount for the lower higher rating and limits the ability to hand it out even more, but I do not know that for a fact. We could just be finicky upstairs.

I've had one of my score suggestions reduced in the past because someone upstairs found one of my people abrasive on a couple of occasions despite obvious and massive results they produced. I know it is all about the relationships, but I prefer to use feedback to handle the one-off incident, not annual review ambush punishment.

Everyone knows how these scores work, and they know they are compared to one another and that no matter how well they perform against objectives, if they are not thought of as being as "strong" as Person A who is considered a top performer, they are not allowed to score on that person's level.

As a high D, it would make things easier for me if I had cold, hard cash to hand out at the end of the year as I saw fit to those directs that performed and was allowed to give rankings myself. Instead, I am tied to corporate performance, a departmental popularity contest, and a quota system all rolled into one dysfunctional system. This leaves me inspiring performance using positive feedback and praise alone. I really do bust my tail on the praise and positive feedback. It's all I have for all but the predetermined top-performer on my team every year that everyone knows will get the higher score.

Any suggestions for how to handle these conversations and adjust my behavior to compensate for their disappointment without making things worse are appreciated.

eagerApprentice's picture

This is tough, I agree. It's quite terrible to have things dictated to you this way if your numbers are right and you can prove it.

One thing I can think of - are you sure everyone only wants high scores and higher salary? Maybe you can offer vacation time, other benefits... etc...

I know that's weak, but other than escalating the issue, it's all I can think of~

BJ_Marshall's picture
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Punt: My performance system allows a direct report to go to his/her boss' boss to appeal the rating. In the instances where I had to give them lower scores, the directs had the right to appeal to my boss. (This appeal wouldn't get them anywhere, but it lets me off the hook - I did my due diligence.)

Sad thing is that everyone knows there is an unstated quota.

One time, I won the battle. I had hard evidence of my directs' performance through my O3 notes. I made a case to my manager that if I can provide X level of evidence to support my claim to give my directs higher ratings, then I think the onus is on the other managers to provide at least X level of evidence to support their claims.


rwwh's picture
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"Raise quota" are difficult to handle, but the origin of your problem is easy: you have a different appointment with your people than you have with your boss. To be completely open with everyone, you have to bring those two to the same scale, or map them in any other way [but obviously not 1:1].

In the root, the problem is caused by the fact that the company performance levels are not aptly named. They should probably be named "The best" "Top 10%" "Average" and "Below average".

It looks like it is too late to solve that for 2008, but next year you should try to make the distinction.

US41's picture

Unfortunately the company uses a tool to do performance grades and we only select which of the options to give after writing some comments and providing performance measurements. The company is large and there is zero flexibility in changing the ranking titles. My folks see their rankings online and the comments - then they have to agree to them by pushing a button.

The only thing I have control over is what I tell them. Given Horstman's Law that says "There are no secrets", I'm wondering what one might be willing to say to their employee.

Saying, "I think you deserve a better score by my boss and "The Military Industrial Complex" will not allow me" seems pretty lame. They know that the quota exists, so this unspoken truth is there. I've had directs say, "This system is flawed and I do not work to achieve within it since I cannot ever get a better score. I'm not one of the cool people and there aren't enough scores to go around. It is not objective."

What do you say to that? I usually say, "Hey, its about how well you perform for me, not about big company policies. I think you do a good job."

That of course leads into, "But you (as in "management" you) are putting in my record that I didn't excel."

Thinking about it gives me cramps.

fchalif's picture
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Does your Company's review format allow you to provide comments and detail the performance data? Can you thus highlight the conclusions you have drawn from the data and focus on that?
i.e. John exceeded expectations this year. John's team beat the 95% satisfaction level target for on time deliveries and did so 30 days early.

If that is so, can you influence your DRs to understand that the score is just a score and that the raise would be the same no matter what, if that is the case. Or is the raise determination very strict and you do not any say in how you can allocate say a 10% departmental increase.

It's a tough situation. Your Company's system implies that it is impossible to have a majority of team members who are high performers.

MsSunshine's picture

1. Have you talked to your HR department about this or have your people? I'd wonder what they said.
2. What is the reason for doing this? When I run into something like this I always ask myself - what could be the reason for it other than the other side is stupid, doesn't care, some other negative thing. Maybe they don't see the impact. Maybe there are reasons I don't know about. If you are comfortable going to HR, I'd explain your thoughts and ask for their help. I'd talk to HR to understand why this is the policy. By restricting the people at the top, I'm guessing that they want to be able to reward them more. But that is just a guess. I'd want to find out.
3. I'd give people my input as it is. Then I'd be factual about what they company requires. The fact is that life isn't fair. What you can do is try to do your best for them. They can choose to accept that or leave. It's harsh but it's the facts. Instead of giving up, they can try to be that star performer.
4. If someone doesn't want to leave, you can help them discover their own internal motivation and show your appreciation at least. I've told people that I can't change the company for them. But I can help them figure out how to make themselves better - for this job or the next.

I'm not sure if any of these thoughts help. The company that bought us enforces a bell curve of sorts - the bottom 1/5 of the bell isn't there because those people would be fired. We haven't seen it in action yet.

US41's picture

So it looks like I am limited to saying, "I think you did great this year. You did this, this, and this, and I thank you for it. Unfortunately, the company's requirement that we curve all scores prevents me from scoring you higher. But I have put in the comments that you have gone beyond what I asked of you and that you did a great job. Thanks!"

Systems like this exist because so many bad managers chicken out of performance management and try to claim that their entire team is awesome, which is a cop-out.

rwwh's picture
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What if you tell them that the company performance scales do not correspond to how you work? Explain that you set individual goals before the year starts, and that the company scales are based on a system where the goals are set at the end of the year, based on comparisons between people.

In the performance review you first give them your own classification: e.g. "you delivered more than I asked for". Then you go on to explain that this corresponds to the level "did your job well" for the company, because what the company calls "did more than your job" actually means "top 10% performer".

thaGUma's picture

Sounds like you have a tradition. You indicate everyone knows that the wording in the award system does not match reality. Similar to the system where anything apart from ‘outstanding’ means you are going nowhere and ‘truly outstanding’ is the actual recognition.

The tradition is that awards are made and everyone moans about the mis-match. You are manager, you pass the award results down to the troops. Do not hint at anyone’s award level being dropped. Instead give them five minutes of your time explaining where you felt they did particularly well this year.

Anyone with the second highest award should be happy in the knowledge it is the top award in practical terms. In your system the top award is a holy grail, probably only achieved by the boss’s son. Unfortunately the majority will all be lumped together.

For those who actually did well and not recognised, it is a hard pill to suffer year on year. When the award directly affects salary then there is an incentive on those people to look elsewhere for recognition.

You are no doubt raising this as an ongoing issue with peers and manger. The system is devalued in its application. The company is misdirecting money as it has a four tier system with payout spread over three.

While you cannot change this system you need to work with it. Your top performer will be happy. The upper performers will be less satisfied unless there are other incentives – promotion etc.

Of course working for an MT manger has its own benefits.


MsSunshine's picture

You said (if I'm understanding correctly), that it's impossible to change the company policy. Is that really so? Has anyone tried? What have you tried to do? How do the other managers feel? It seems like you are all in the same situation.

I'm a "do something person" and maybe you've already tried this. But I always think first of what can I do or organize others to do. Maybe this wouldn't be acceptable in your culture. But for me here, I'd be thinking about what can I do to change this. In my world, it would come down to presenting the facts about the pros & cons of the current system versus something better for the company in terms of keeping what they like about the current system and having something that helps grow/retain staff.

Would your boss allow you to do this? Do you have someone higher up who you could approach? Do you have any facts to show the issues this is causing? Do you have peers who can also show the same?

ramiska's picture

US41, I feel your pain. I work under a similar system. Very frustrating!
We also do not receive financial adjustments for several months after the review is complete. While I find this ridiculous, it has the benefit of keeping the review completely about performance and not about money (though there is the obvious connection).
I put a lot of effort into my write-ups, hoping that they are read by someone other than me and my DR when "they" discuss raises. When delivering the review, I put an emphasis on a middle-of-the-road score as actually being good but do not spend much time talking about scores. What is important is what has been written long-form. We are here to discuss last year's performance as a jumping off point for what can be done better in the future. The past has already happened.

stephenbooth_uk's picture

My employer is introducing something similar, based around 5 grade levels:

1 - Poor performance (fails to meet goals), being managed towards dismissal
2 - Poor performance (meets or narroiwly fails to meet goals) but not bad enough to get you sacked, will probably get pay decrement
3 - Acceptable performance (exceeds goals), no changes to pay
4 - Excellent performance (significantly exceeds goals), may get an increment
5 - Above excellent performance (massively exceeds goals), will probably get pay increment

Pay is based on a fixed system of spinal column points divided into grades. Your role has a grade which you will start at some point at, typically the bottom, then move up if your performance is good enough until you hit the top. In theory that's how it works anyhow. In reality for a team pay increment/decrement has to be a zero sum game, that is for one person to go up an increment someone else has to go down an increment.

On the one hand this does mean that people on one team don't have their progression curbed so that people on another team can progress. On the other, however, it means that a team made up high performing members (maybe they've landed up together by luck or their manager is just really good at inspiring performance) may find that none of them can progress (no-one is performing poorly enough to suffer a decrement) whilst the higher performing members of a team with more mixed abilities or a less inspiring manager (who may be performing more highly than their team mates but not as well as the members of the team of hot shots) do progress because there are people who's pay can be decremented in their team.

Not conducive to good relations and team playing. I've already heard suggestions that team members may sabotage others on the same team to create decrements to supply their own increments.

On the original issue. I think in the short term all you can do is make sure that your directs know what the situation is and that you have to 'grade on a curve'. In the longer term could you suggest that assignment of 'points' to teams be based on team performance and the manager of the team be free to assign them within the team as they see fit. That way if your team as a whole performs better than someone else's team you'll be able to reward your high performers and the team as a whole will have an incentive to perform better. I've been told of places where this system is used and heard some good reports. The only caveat I've heard of is that sometimes it leads high performers to bully lower performers into leaving, rather than trying to help improve their performance.


AManagerTool's picture

I work in the same bell curved performance management system. I have had to argue performance ratings for my directs within this curve. Fortunately, for the most part my directs get what I ask for and I haven't had to present some discrepancy to them except in one case. In that case, I asked for an above average rating and it was dropped to an average rating. In that case, I presented it to my direct as if it were my rating for them. I didn't go into the meeting and say, "I wanted to give you X and they made me give you X-1." That said....I wanted to.....but felt that it would be wrong to do so. As Mark points out, I am my employers representative.

Every manager that works in this system complains about it (me too). We know why the system exists. In large populations, bad management abounds and ratings are completely inflated. Nobody wants to have that difficult conversation so they puff up their directs ratings. This is large scale HR's attempt to combat this symptom of the disease of poor management.

I have suggestions:

[b]1. Ownership.[/b] Own the ratings you give. If you blame it on the "system" or "Upper management" or some other conceptual "them", you will demoralize your staff. They can't fight the "system". They can't prove themselves to "upper management". However, they can change for you. They can work had at improving themselves to change your opinion. Of course, you will have to deal with the venom associated with all this but that's why they pay you the big bucks.

[b]2. Money.[/b] In my "system" we have quite a lot of play in the monetary portion of the evaluation. When someone gets robbed by the calibration process, we make up for it monetarily.

[b]3. Decimal point system.[/b] Use the decimal point system. We have 5 ratings like Steven. I don't rate them on that scale. I use a decimal point. Instead of just rating someone a 3, I rate them a 3.0 - 3.9 so that they can see where they are and if they are improving. I also base some of the monetary rewards on what's in that scale. Just because HR works in integers doesn't mean I have to. This also becomes valuable at calibration time. A 4.1 might get knocked down to a 3 but a 4.8? No chance of that happening.

[b]4. Performance and intangibles.[/b] Put emphasis on ratings as a performance management tool, not just a monetary tool. Your people should want to perform even if there was no money to give out or you might have the wrong people. This isn't only about rewards in the current cycle. This is about promotability, management attention, who gets the good projects, what the order is for training, who gets laid off in the event of a downturn, what people get when they are laid off, time off, attention to lateness, who gets free lunch once in a while....I could go on and on.

[b]5. Levels.[/b] Put emphasis on salary banding. Managers should expect to have a higher bar set for them. If you are a manager and perform at the level of a manager, you should not expect to obtain top ratings. It should be much easier to attain higher performance (and ratings) at lower levels than at higher ones. The salaries are lower and the jobs are "supposedly" easier.

[b]6. Relationships.[/b] Perhaps the biggest suggestion I can make to anyone about working in these systems is about relationships. It's sad to say but [u]your[/u] relationships COUNT. I have a much easier time at calibration meetings because the other managers know me, they know that when I say that someone is a 4, they are indeed a 4 and they also know that I carry a lot of clout with our customers and our management. My title (I'm the lowest ranking manager) is not what they respect, it's my political and emotional capital that gets my staff the ratings I ask for.

[b]7. Prewire.[/b] The other managers rip each others guts out at this meeting, I pass through unscathed. I prewire these calibration meetings diligently. Prior to these meetings, I make phone calls to the other managers and discuss what I want and they want. We horse trade. No ambushes. I support them, they support me.

jhack's picture


Might you go to your manager (who undoubtedly knows your team's performance rocks) and say something like: "my folks outperform other teams, and you ought to allocate more 'outstandings' to my group."? That would entail reducing the number for other groups.

I've seen folks fight for a larger share of the bonus or salary pool in like manner.

It's a tough spot, and it punishes the manager who assembles a great team.


sklosky's picture

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results.

My suggestion is that you change your behavior by not working for a company and a boss that have their heads in the sand.

Shoot, it seems to me that you have a lot of good ideas about how to run a business. I would think that if you chose to, you could start your own operation and beat the nearsighted company at their own game.

Best Regards,