This month I cover a touchy subject—getting a 4 or 5 review rating. Please know that all opinions expressed in this column (and every Hard Code column) are my own and do not represent Microsoft in any official or unofficial capacity.
Also know that plenty of employees improve their review ratings by 2 values over the previous review period. Getting a 4 or 5 rating is far from hopeless, but you can’t just ignore it. Take action to significantly improve your situation, and you’ll do fine.
Reviews are communicated between mid-August and mid-September at Microsoft. For employees this year who receive ratings between 1 and 3, the review message will be fine—perhaps a little disappointing for the insatiable among us, but fine. For employees who receive a 4 rating, the review message will be discouraging. For employees who receive a 5 rating, the review message will be harsh.
There’s a tendency for managers, friends, and peers to say to those getting a 4 or 5 rating, “It’s going to be okay.” Maybe they said that earlier in the year, after a serious misstep or string of bad decisions. Maybe they said that recently, after the tough review. Regardless of when it was said, or who said it, let me cut through the caring crud and give you the straight scoop—it’s not going to be okay unless you act to make it better.
Some folks just have an off year or one too many different managers. However, when you are regularly chastised for behaving badly (bad work, bad interactions, or bad decisions), it’s not going to be okay. When you fail to achieve a high-profile deliverable on time or with high quality, it’s not going to be okay. When you deeply embarrass your team, your manager, or the company, it’s not going to be okay. And when one or more of those incidents results in your performance being rated 4 or 5, guess what? It’s not going to be okay—it’s going to be hard. You must take significant action, and since others are too afraid to be blunt, I’m laying it out for you now.
Microsoft’s 1 – 5 review ratings correspond to the following percentages of folks within the same discipline and level band: the top 20 percent, the next 20 percent, the middle 45 percent, the next lower 10 percent, and the lowest 5 percent.
I describe how managers should handle the most serious of performance issues in “The toughest job—Poor performers” (chapter 9).
Sisyphus is us
Here’s what often happens when your performance is rated 4 or 5 among peers in your division. You refocus your efforts, work a lot harder, improve in a few areas, and really have a better year.
At next year’s review calibration, your manager goes in thinking you’ve moved up to the middle 45 percent (a 3 rating). However, it turns out everyone has too many people in the top 20 percent, so some of them get moved down into the second 20 percent. Of course, now there’s far too many in the second 20 percent, so they get moved down into the middle 45 percent.
Before you know it, you’re falling toward the bottom of that middle 45 percent. No one at calibration wants to move his or her folks from the middle 45 percent to next 10 percent (a 4 rating), but there are too many in the middle, so someone has to move. Your peers didn’t start from a deficit like you did, so they’re ahead of you now. The result? Your rating is back to a 4. So what can you do to change the cycle?
If Microsoft’s review system wasn’t based on percentages (“a curve”), then people who did a solid job (according to their managers and/or peers) would receive at least average rewards. However, Microsoft fundamentally believes in differentiated rewards based on how employees perform relative to their discipline peers in the same level band. Thus, it’s possible for employees to do solid work and yet end up with a 4 rating, as I describe above.
A change would do you good
When your performance is rated 4 or 5, it takes more than doing better to break out of your slump—you need to do much better.
How do you do much better? There are a few options:
- You can stay in the same job on the same team, but experience a fundamental change in your environment. Maybe your situation at home has dramatically improved. Maybe your personal or spiritual health has rebounded substantially. Maybe you’ve finished that degree or otherwise removed a significant distraction in your life. Don’t kid yourself—the change needs to be big for you to gain a big improvement.
- You can switch to a job that aligns far better with your talents and passion and/or significantly expands your opportunity to grow and excel. You can do this on the same team, with the help of your manager, or move to a different team. However, don’t leave your current team thinking that alone will do the trick. Find a better environment in which to achieve. In other words, don’t leave someplace—go someplace.
- You can switch disciplines or otherwise dramatically change your role. This might involve dropping a few levels to give yourself a chance to adjust to your new responsibilities. Being in the right role can make all the difference.
- You can find a new job outside Microsoft, possibly in a new field or discipline.
The point is, you can’t simply work weekends and expect a better review next time. You must change things up dramatically to jump forward.
For advice on changing groups, read Get a job: Finding new roles and A change would do you good. If you’re starting a new role, read The new guy. Note that Microsoft limits your ability to switch roles if you receive a 5 rating. (I talk about this more below.)
If you do have a home or health situation impacting your performance, you should definitely talk to your HR person and/or manager about it. Microsoft provides many options to help you get back on track.
You have special talent
If you decide to switch roles or disciplines, how do you pick the right direction? Focus on your talents and passion. Too many people worry about chasing their weaknesses instead of building on their strengths.
Yes, you must mitigate your weaknesses to prevent them from inhibiting your growth. That’s what those review improvement areas are about—not getting blocked by bad habits. For example, I have trouble listening; I can’t remember dates, times, facts, and figures; and I’m dyslexic and make tons of typos. So, I lock my screen and scratch down notes to clear distractions during conversations, I carry a smart device (my first was the Palm 100), I’m cautious when I quote facts (I hedge verbally), and I ask peers to review and proof my key emails and writing. What I don’t do is blow my free time on memory or grammar classes.
Working hard on areas or in roles where you’re lousy is a colossal waste of time. Yeah, I know your pride won’t let you be a failure in anything, but you’re never going to be world class in your weaknesses—the best you’ll become is average. Yet your peers are among the best in the industry.
So, swallow your pride and be honest with yourself about your skills and what you love. Talk to your friends about what they do and where you might best fit. Get excited. Let it show. Chase after the work that makes you sing.
It’s possible for your manager to independently recognize that your skills and passion aren’t being fully utilized and to realign your current job in your favor. That manager would be a keeper. But you shouldn’t count on such luck. Recognize your own limitations, talk to your manager about opportunities that make better use of you, and put your manager in a position to help.
The exception that proves the rule
There is an exception to blowing your free time on improvement classes: dealing with serious interpersonal issues. If you are a star in the current job that you love, yet you are an enormous jackass, switching groups won’t help. After all, you are already playing to your strengths and passion. You’re just a jackass. In this case, taking classes on interpersonal skills and actively practicing good behavior is essential.
First impressions matter, so you may not want to switch teams until you’ve clearly overcome your social deficits—when you’re no worse than the rest of us. Then you could get a fresh start on a new team or even stay put, assuming there haven’t been death threats.
If l was in your shoes
If your performance is ranked in the bottom 5 percent (a 5 rating), then Microsoft HR restrictions limit your ability to switch roles. Maybe you saw this review coming and switched teams a few months in advance. Maybe you’re the exception that proves the rule. Otherwise, your options are a bit limited. What should you do? You should consider leaving the company—not necessarily leave, but consider it.
“But wait, I can do better! My manager says I just need to pick it up. I’m totally capable of being in the middle 45 percent or even the top 40 percent. Lisa [Brummel, the head of HR,] says every year is a fresh start.” All of that is true—you can do better, your manager meant what he said, you are capable, and Lisa was sincere. It’s just that circumstances are not in your favor, and your chances of success may be far better if you leave the company.
All companies need to make space for people to move up. That space comes from attrition or growth. Microsoft is still a growing company, but the ratio of open positions to filled positions is nothing like it used to be. That means the company must make room through attrition. Being placed in the bottom 5 percent may be the company’s way of saying, “Perhaps you’d do better elsewhere at this point in your career.”
I know the US economy is terrible, but software engineers are in high demand, and you are probably sharp and capable. It may be time to step away from Microsoft and join an exciting new enterprise, or you could change things up completely and pursue that other career you had put on hold. Regardless, this is an opportunity to reassess your goals and find a new situation in which you can be happy and successful.
Over my career, I’ve seen many talented individuals leave Microsoft at a time that wasn’t of their choosing. In every case, I’ve seen the same outcome. At first they were confused and upset. Then they thought through what they wanted to do and pursued it. Within a year, they had found a new career inside or outside the software industry and were visibly happier than before, when they were struggling in their old jobs.
Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction
The worst thing you can do when you receive a 4 or 5 rating is nothing—believing it’s going to be okay and telling yourself that you just need to work harder. Just working harder probably isn’t the solution. It might even stress you out and mess up your personal life, which causes more problems and even worse performance.
Instead, be honest with yourself. Are you changing something significantly about your environment at work or at home? Or are you finding a new assignment or switching to a new discipline that better aligns with your strengths and passions? Are you making that big change to gain the big improvement you seek?
If you don’t think such a change is possible for you at Microsoft, have you thought about changing your career? Maybe going back to your roots or starting fresh somewhere new? Maybe re-centering yourself around what truly matters to you?
Yes, in the short term, things aren’t okay—but long term they can be if you don’t let your pride or fear get in the way. Open your mind and your heart, seek out your passion, and make tomorrow a better day.