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Why Your Annual Review is Unfair

Dear Evil HR Lady

It's employee evaluation time again, and I am feeling very frustrated. For the past two years my boss has given me the highest possible evaluation. He has said I am the best employee he's had for 15 years and he can't think of any suggestions for improvement. But then he has given me 2s and 3s as ratings (1 is the highest and 5 is the lowest). When I asked him about it, he said that he was told to do so (he actually had to lower the initial ratings he gave me) because if he gave me all 1s then he'd have to give me a raise, and he has been told he can't give raises. This is company policy that I don't think he can do anything about, but it's extremely disheartening. Do I just shrug my shoulders and go along with this unfair system? How common is this?
I don't have any percentages. (Mainly because companies don't willingly participate in my "what's your stupidest policy?" survey, although they should, if it existed, which it doesn't.) However, here is some insight into what might be going on behind the scenes.
  • Your boss is a big fat liar. Some people find it absolutely impossible to say anything negative to their employees. They are scared to death to suggest improvements, even if they are warranted. So, he tells you there are no suggestions for improvement and you are super. He tells this to all his employees because he can't say, "Your work on the Bollinger account was sloppy, which caused me to have to work over the weekend to fix your errors." However, even though he's a complete wimp in person, he has to sit down with his peers to go over everyone's ratings. In that setting, he's willing to concede that you are not perfect (largely because his coworkers wouldn't allow you to be rated a 1, when their employees, who are better than you, are given 2s). But to your face? Always perfection and blaming the ratings on the "system" rather than saying you have some areas that are open for improvement.
  • You're not high enough up the totem pole. I hate to say it, but in systems where the number of high ranked employees is limited (which it sounds like is the case in your company), the best rankings are saved for the highest paid employees. Now, you could argue that they are the best employees and that's why they make the most money, but I've met an awful lot of people who are dumb as rocks and yet manage to pull in twice my salary. (And that's the beauty of being the HR person responsible for salary increases--you legitimately know everyone's salary.) But, rather than ranking these employees against their own expectations, companies say, "Well of course the senior directors and AVPs should be 1s." And since the number of 1s is limited (along with the resulting pay increases), they are handed out to those senior directors and AVPs, regardless of whether they are actually doing the best job when compared to their objectives.
  • Your boss isn't high enough up the totem pole. See above, except not only are you too low, your boss is as well. The favored employees are those that report directly to the Sr. VP and because you don't, you aren't eligible for higher performance ratings. This may seem utterly ridiculous, but understand that ratings aren't generally made in a vacuum. Your boss sits down with his peers and his boss sits down with her peers and they compare and they rank. If there are only 5 employees that are "allowed" to receive the highest rating, and the Sr. VP is insisting that his gum chewing, inappropriately dressed, dingbat of an admin deserves that high rating, your low level, line manager, doesn't have the clout to change that. He'll smile and say, "Yes, sir" and change your rating.
  • Your company has really stupid policies. Rather than saying, "We do not have money for raises right now, but we want our employees to be fairly evaluated anyway," they just pretend they have money for raises, but you're too lousy of an employee to get one. (Not that 2s and 3s are bad ratings, they are not, but they just aren't the best rating.) They announce that the best of the best will be rewarded, but then refuse to label anyone the best. Your boss is being accurate when he says you're fabulous, but he's not allowed to give you the highest possible rating.
So what to do in this situation? You can complain, but to whom? Your boss, who has already acknowledged your rating is unfair? HR, who thought of the policy and supports the VP anyway? Your boss's boss, who saved the higher ratings for his employees?

Sorry, I'm making you more depressed. This is one of those situations where the people with the power to change the system already know it's broken. They can't agree amongst themselves how it should be changed, so they leave it alone. Unless you have absolutely compelling evidence that you are better than everyone else (for instance, if your job is easily quantifiable, like in sales), it's extremely unlikely that you'd receive anything positive by issuing a formal complaint. A formal complaint is going to make your boss angry. He'll have to justify his rating of you, which will cause him to remember any little thing you ever did wrong.

But, something to consider is that you might want to start casually looking for a new job. If you are as fabulous as your boss says you are, you can probably find a job where your hard work is actually rewarded.

And let that be a warning to all of you managers and HR people who put stupid performance appraisal policies and procedures into place. It's not the lack of money that will be driving this person out the door. It's the lack of recognition.

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