How to challenge your performance appraisal in a startup environment


Startup environments differ significantly from corporates. For one, employees are part of a hustle. They manage different profiles, work closely with different teams, and contribute in many ways apart from the job function they were hired for. While this is great for learning, there are also chances of ambiguity in the performance appraisal season, where your manager may not necessarily focus on the different ways you contributed, but rather on the ways your work did not contribute to his/her team or goals.

A tricky situation if there ever was one, but the good news is that in startup environments, you do have an army of people who would have noticed your work even if your line manager did not. The simplest way out of this conundrum would be a 360-degree performance rating, but many startups have not reached that level of evolution in their HR policies. In fact, in several small businesses, even the process does not take place on time due to the hustle and chaos. So a 360-degree process working like clockwork becomes more of a challenge.

Given the situation and its many challenges, how does a startup employee go about challenging performance ratings if he/she needs to?

First things first – what is performance appraisal?

First, one needs to understand exactly what a performance appraisal is. According to HBR’s Dick Grote, “Start by recognizing that a performance appraisal is not a testable, provable, verifiable document that can be empirically analyzed and confirmed. It’s not the end product of a negotiation between assessor and assessee. A performance appraisal is a formal record of a supervisor’s opinion of the quality of an employee’s work. The important word here is ‘opinion’. As long as that opinion is based on your manager’s honest assessment of how well you have done the job and is uncoloured by personal biases and prejudices, the manager has done the job that is expected of them, and the matter is settled.”

In matters of appraisal, precaution is better than cure

The tricky part is that even if the appraisal is prejudiced, biased, or inaccurate, there is no easy way to call it out. That is where managing up comes into play. A lot of the evaluation of the performance appraisal happens in the months leading up to the actual appraisal itself, throughout the year. So in a way, making your work visible through the year in one-on-one conversations with your manager or by way of weekly updates can ensure that your efforts and outcomes don’t seep through the cracks during appraisal season.

In many situations, this can seem easier said than done, but a diligent manager would like regular updates on your progress anyway. Feeding details about the scope of your work beyond what the manager essentially wants can then take part in these conversations. Remember, if it helps you have a fair and unbiased appraisal at the end, it is worth the awkwardness you might feel in going up to your boss and talking about your performance on a regular basis.

Another trick that works, especially in organizations that follow the self-appraisal model as most do now, is to make your self-appraisal form as foolproof and comprehensive as possible. Remember, if you don’t talk about your achievements, you can’t blame anyone else for not remembering them. That doesn’t mean you sing odes to yourself. All it means is that you objectively list down all the important outcomes you achieved through the year. Objectivity is key here because it is difficult to contest hard facts backed by evidence. It is easy to claim achievements as fact; however, you will find that your appraisal goes a lot smoother if you are able to back up your claims with quantifiable proof.

How do you challenge the appraisal?

Despite all your efforts to showcase your work and giving a comprehensive appraisal form, things may still not be to your advantage. Let us say you messed up the run-up to the appraisal and ended up with a far-from-optimum rating. You were unable to gather the numbers needed to back up your claims about the work you did, and couldn’t get people to vouch for your performance either. You’re worried that the manager has a biased unfavourable view of you and your work, and is likely to give you a poor appraisal despite your hard work and efforts. How do you salvage such a situation? Start with the following steps:

Stay calm. This is not a battle you are going to win by throwing a childish tantrum. In fact, chances are that those exact tantrums will become the reasons for your manager to stick to his/her guns. If you are caught off-guard and are not prepared for a difficult conversation, just state that you don’t agree with the rating and would need some time to take it in. Ask for another conversation in a day or two when you feel you aren’t angry or feeling shortchanged. You need to have an objective conversation.

Dive in deep, take notes and prepare to ask for clarifications. Note that this needs to be done objectively. You know your perspective on your work, but you also must weigh in on your manager’s perspective. Is there a chance that he/she might be right? Is the lesson in it that you need to be more forthright about your achievements?

Get your facts together. This includes appreciation emails from clients or other team members, your own evaluation of your work and contributions, and any other material that supports your point of view on your performance.

Ask around, even if your organization doesn’t follow a 360-degree appraisal model. If you have worked with people you trust over the course of the year – as you most likely would have in startup environments – check in on what they thought of your contributions. That will give you some facts that are beyond your personal opinions on your own work.

Prepare for the meeting. This means you need to get the exact questions and clarifications together in an organized manner. Be sure you know exactly what you want out of the discussion and what is the next best thing you are willing to take. For example, your ideal outcome could be an immediate change in performance rating, and the second-best option could be a re-evaluation in six months time. Keeping such a realistic approach is the core of workplace negotiation, and the sooner you learn this, the better. Most importantly, thinking of the worst-case scenario will help you stay objective during the conversation.

During the meeting, keep a hold on your emotions. You don’t want to be the one storming out of the room if the conversation does not go as expected.

Put the facts you gathered on the table. Ask for clarifications without being defensive or telling your boss upfront that he/she is wrong in their assessment. Ask for hard facts in return, not opinions. Ask pointed questions about how the feedback made a difference to your work because if it didn’t, it is probably not important and must be contested.

Have a clear picture of your manager’s expectations. If you have met them, respond. If you haven’t, take note.

If your rating changes with immediate effect, thank your manager. But be realistic and remember that the chance of this happening is slim.

If your rating does not change immediately, work on a plan of action. If there are some areas that need work, agree on a timeframe to discuss progress. On your manager’s end, ensure that you have his/her commitment to keeping to the discussed timelines and to giving you timely feedback through the year instead of waiting for the next performance appraisal cycle.

Prepare for the next appraisal. Appraisals are not just to evaluate past performance but also to set future goals. This is going to be crucial to ensure that you don’t go through a similar situation next year. Make sure your goals are aligned with your manager’s expectations and larger team and organizational goals. Discuss the steps you need to take and any skill development areas where your manager or other senior mentors can help.

Remember the lessons. Whether it is your manager’s objective feedback on your performance that you agree with, or a need to keep a record of and showcase your achievements through the year, it is important that you don’t forget the lessons you learned as soon as you are out of the discussion. If the conversation reeks of bias or prejudice and does not have an element of objectivity in it, it might be time to start considering a team or job change. Objectively consider your options and make your move.

Challenging your performance appraisal is not just about fighting the good fight or ensuring an immediate change in ratings. It is also about showcasing that you are willing to put in the effort and will not stand for ratings that are not thought-through or fair. Let your objectivity shine through in the discussion and commit to getting better. After all, there is no antidote to great work and the ability to showcase it – at the right time, at the right place. All the best!


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