How to Ace Your Next Annual Review

Written By John Sonmez

The review process.

Ah, such good memories…

Such bad memories…

Such… bull shit.

Yeah, you know it’s true.

Most review processes are exactly that: bull shit.

Let’s just go ahead and adjust these goals to match what you actually did instead of what we decided to set as goals six months ago.

Can’t give you a perfect review, so let me see if I can think of some area that could use some improvement.

Rate yourself––we’ll get to this one a little later.

If you and I know that most review processes are shams, it’s still important to learn how to master that sham, so you can get raises and have a good employee file.

This chapter is about how, but first, a story.

How I Turned My Review Around

Once upon a time, I worked for a very corporate company called HP, or Hewlett Packard.

This company utilized a stack ranking system for their review process.

We’ll talk about it more in a bit, but basically it’s like grading on a curve.

Only so many people can get the highest ranking, so many people can get the middle, and some poor suckers—whether they deserve it or not—have to get the poor ratings.

In this particular year, I had kicked ass.


I had read about 15 technical books, had earned 5 Microsoft Certifications, formed and led a brand new team, produced several new tools for the development environment, and was a key player in bringing a new .NET architecture to printers.

Not only that, but I had exceeded all the objectives I had set out to achieve on the “goal for next year” section of my previous performance review.

I was ready to get the highest rating possible and possibly a promotion.

I filled out my portion of the review paperwork, wrote down what I accomplished, set out my goals for next year, and then had my review meeting with my manager.

I had already been checking in with him periodically, so I was pretty sure nothing was going to be a shock.

The meeting went well, and he was impressed with what I had accomplished.

I waited patiently—well, not exactly patiently—to find out what my rating would be.

The next week, when all the reviews were done, I logged in to check my rating.


I was ranked at below average. One level from the bottom ranking.

I almost fell over in my chair.

There had to be a mistake.

I scheduled a meeting to ask my boss about it.

He confessed that since I had recently received a promotion and I was at the higher end of my payscale, he was getting pressured to rank some of the other developers at the top so they could balance things out a bit.

He emphasized that if it were up to him, I’d get the highest rating possible, but they could only give out one of those rankings, and only with that ranking could they give a promotion to another developer, so they had to make some tough choices.

I was not happy.

He told me that I could appeal the rating and he’d see what he could do, but I needed to provide some documentation showing why I thought it was not a fair ranking and how I had exceeded all my objectives.

I spent the next day taking all the highlights from my weekly reports and sorting through my “kudos” folder I had created in my Outlook email program.

I looked at the requirements publicly stated for each ranking.

I took all this and put it together in a several page document, listing about 50 accomplishments I had achieved over the course of that year, 10 of the most impressive kudos emails I had received from managers, coworkers, and stakeholders, and a detailed point-by-point list of every objective in my performance review and how I had exceeded it.

Oh, and I also included documentation and emails where I had been checking in every week with my boss asking if I was on target and if there was anything at all I needed to work on and improve.

My case was airtight.

At this point you are probably expecting the typical “but it didn’t matter” ending.

Well, that’s not what happened.

The next week, when I came into work, on my desk was the revised employee review.

I had now been ranked at the top of the stack, and was offered a job title promotion and a significant pay bump.

I had accomplished the impossible.


Let’s talk about that.

Check In Ahead Of Time

Your annual review should not be the first time you and your boss have a discussion to talk about how you are doing and where you need to improve.

In fact, if anything on your annual review or anything your boss says about your annual review is a shock to you, you’ve already messed up.

I don’t like to leave things to chance, and I’m not a fan of surprises, either.

Once you’ve created your plan for the year and outlined your goals and areas to work on, you should be checking in with your boss on how you are progressing, at least once every two weeks, and preferably once a week.

You should ask point blank how you are doing and if there is anything, anything at all, that you are doing that could use improvement.

If there is something, work on it and then show progress during the next “check in.”

If there isn’t anything, confirm it.

Say, “So, what you are saying is that right now I’m 100 percent on track to meet all the objectives for this year and there is absolutely nothing you think I need to work on to improve?”

“Just want to make sure I’ve got that straight.”

Document this.

Note the date and the time and exactly what was said.

If you are really smart, you’ll send an email asking that question after having the face-to-face meeting.

It’s called CYA. I’ll let you figure out the acronym.

By doing this, you’ll be accomplishing a few key things.

First of all, you’ll be giving yourself the opportunity to fix any actual or perceived deficiencies before the actual review.

Second, you’ll be leaning on the consistency principle to ensure there are no surprises in your review.

People are very strongly compelled to be consistent with what they’ve said or done in the past.

(You can read about this in Robert Cialdini’s famous book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.)

If your boss says you are doing a great job and there is nothing you can improve on now, he’s going to be much more compelled to say the same thing at review time.

Finally, you are creating extremely compelling evidence that you are doing everything you can in case you ever need it.

Have Clear Goals, Make Them Known

What is your objective or goal for your review?

Are you looking to get a promotion?

To get a perfect review score?

Perhaps you are trying to overcome a weakness on last year’s review and this year you want it to be a strength?

Whatever your goal is, figure it out and make it known.

Tell your boss what you are trying to accomplish in terms of your review.

Make it well known and then ask what you need to do to achieve it.

Document the response.

Write that down.

If you can get it via email, even better.

Once you’ve said “according to the HR role descriptions, a Software Engineer IV needs to be able to do X and, blah, blah, blah…”

And you’ve told your boss you’d like to be promoted to a Software Engineer IV, you are doing X to get there, and asked him what would make it clear that you were there at your next review…

And he’s told you.

And you’ve documented it.

Then, you’ve got something you can almost take to the bank.

Just do what was agreed upon and make it known that is what you are doing; if you now meet those requirements, at review time you are going to have a really good case for getting what you want.

It really is that simple.

Track And Document Your Progress

This is key.

I’ve said it many times, but make sure you document everything, especially your progress.

You should already be creating weekly reports which detail the high-level things you’ve done each day and summarize the highlights of your week.

But you shouldn’t stop there.

Document the books you’ve read, any trainings you’ve attended, anything that shows improvement and progress towards your goals.

Look at your previous review and objectives for the year.

Document everything you can that shows you are meeting those objectives and/or moving towards them.

Again, this is not rocket science.

It’s actually common sense, but still so many software developers get blindsided by reviews.

You’ll find in life that most people don’t document things, but if you ever get into an argument or a legal case with someone who does—oh boy.

Be that guy or gal.

Build Your Case

Part of the reason why you want to document everything is to build up your case for getting high marks on a review or ultimately getting that promotion.

Take the documentation you have about progressing towards your goals, and what your boss indicated you needed to do and how you are doing it, and combine it with everything else you need to build an airtight case.

Pretend you are a lawyer.

Gather emails where people have praised you.

When someone gives you kudos, ask them to send you an email.

I used to keep a kudos folder in my email for storing all the good emails I received from people throughout the year.

This is all good evidence that supports your case.

Your boss, and especially his higher-ups, aren’t going to know about all the great things you’ve been doing. You have to tell them.

So, do it.

Don’t be afraid to brag here.

When you walk into the review, it should be with a casefile worth of material that even the toughest jury couldn’t ignore.

Appeal, If You Need To

I did just about everything I’m recommending here and I still got screwed.

But guess what? I didn’t give up.

Especially in a big corporation, HR doesn’t expect you to put up a fight.

They have their BS stack ranking systems that they know are BS.

They have a fake review process and job level descriptions that serve to provide some semblance of fairness and order, but they really don’t mean anything.

That is, until you challenge it with evidence.

What I did at HP was unheard of.

No one changes their rating on a review.

Yet, I did it—and it was easy.

Because I had the evidence to back up my case and no one had any evidence to show otherwise.

Maybe someone could have assembled some kind of evidence against me, showing how I indeed did not meet the expectations or how I didn’t meet some objective, but it would have been quite a bit of work.

It was much easier to find some other sucker who wouldn’t fight so hard, give him the lower ranking, and give me what I wanted.

So, don’t be afraid to appeal the decision.

Just make sure you have ample evidence to back up your appeal, or you will just seem like a whiner.


The Rate Yourself Trap

One of the most infamous review traps is the one where you “get to” rate yourself.

How the heck do you handle this situation?

Do you give yourself all perfect ratings and risk seeming like a narcissistic jerk?

Do you humbly rate yourself lower than you really deserve, hoping that your boss will correct you and lift you higher?

Do you honestly try and rate yourself from an unbiased perspective? Ha, as if that were possible.

Really, what do you do?

First of all, if you can refuse to rate yourself, do it.

Simply say that you can’t reasonably rate yourself in an unbiased way—no one can—and that anything you put down would not be accurate.

If that fails, which, honestly, most likely it will, then here is what I think is the best strategy:

Rate yourself as highly as possible in all areas but your weakest area and give yourself one mark below perfect there.

The reasoning behind this is simple.

If you are being asked to rate yourself, why would you want to purposely do yourself harm?

It doesn’t make any sense at all.

There is no possible benefit from you giving yourself a low rating.

Best case, your boss says “you deserve higher than that,” worst case he believes you.

Instead, you should try and rate yourself as highly as possible.

Worst case, your boss says “don’t you think that’s a little high?”

To which you reply “you asked me to rate myself.”

Best case, he believes you.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like harming myself.

You give me a gun and tell me to pick somewhere to shoot myself, I’m going to aim at the empty space right between my toes.

If I thought you could get away with it, I’d say rate yourself completely perfect—I’m actually still on the fence on this one.

But, I think you’ll do better by giving yourself at least one less than perfect mark, because it will make your self-rating more believable.

For the record, I absolutely hate self-ranking and peer ranking.

Both are extremely biased and only present you with situations that can only harm you and not help you.

Peer Ranking

I wasn’t planning about talking about peer ranking, but since I just mentioned it above, let’s take a real quick second to discuss.

So, peer ranking…

What should you do?

If you are forced to do this communist, rat-on-your-friends tactic, refuse to be part of the gestapo by simply rating all your peers as perfectly as possible.

Yes, you heard me right.

Give them all perfect reviews and say plenty of good things about them.

Nothing good can come of giving your peers bad ratings.

At best, they get demoted or fired, which is highly unlikely.

At worst, they find out about it, they become your boss or team lead and make your life hell, your boss thinks you are an ass, everyone thinks you are an ass, and you have to quit and look for another job because you’ve created a hostile work environment for yourself.

So, even if your peers suck and deserve to be fired, unless you are the actual boss in charge of firing, don’t be the sucker who brings them down.

Quick note:

I want to make it very clear about why I am advocating what some people might deem dishonest practices when it comes to self-rating and peer-rating.

Why don’t I just say, just rate yourself and your peers as honestly as possible?

I completely understand the sentiment, and I’d like to advocate that approach, but I have a problem.

I think self-ratings and peer-ratings are bull shit on every level.

It’s not fair to put people into situations where they have to stab themselves or the people next to them.

And whatever you put down isn’t going to mean jack anyway.

It’s like one of those fake psychological tests where they see how much you’ll zap someone with fake electricity when you think that it’s real.

If I thought self and peer ratings were fair—or that they could be fair and unbiased and not carry extremely negative repercussions—I’d be all for filling them out honestly.

Rather than marching out into the street and protesting these kind of reviews, I advocate doing the next best thing. I choose a more passive resistance approach.

Take away their power by subverting the system.

Don’t stab yourself or your friend.

Feel free to disagree.

Stacked Ranking

I dislike stacked ranking almost as much as I dislike peer reviews, but stacked ranking is just a fact of life at some corporations and we have to deal with it.

I have found that more and more corporations are getting rid of the stacked ranking programs lately.

The idea behind stacked ranking is fairly simple, and actually makes some sense.

Essentially, you take all employees and you figure out the top 10 percent of the high achievers, the 80 percent that are average, and the 10 percent that are the worst.

You promote and reward the top 10 percent and you fire the bottom 10 percent.

There are a few problems with this approach, though.

The biggest one is that most HR departments and managers don’t actually give the rankings based on performance, but rather on other motivations.

So, instead of actually ranking the top 10 percent at the top ranking, they pick based on politics, pay scales, and other factors.

And since there are only so many “top slots” to go around, managers and departments tend to horse trade over those slots, and again, the ranking is determined more by politics than performance.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great system in theory—I’m all for firing the bottom 10 percent of any company—but, in practice it leads to all kinds of problems.

The point here is not to complain about the stacked ranking system though; it’s to tell you what to do about it.

Obviously, you want to do is stay out of the bottom 10 percent and preferably get into the top 10 percent.

The best way to do this is to, again, have ample evidence to back up your case that you are an overachiever at the company.

We’ve already covered how to do that, so I won’t go over it again here.

Next up is to make sure that you know what is going on politically.

How many employees are in your group?

How many top rankings are there?

Try and figure out who you are competing against and any political movements that might be underway.

You might need to make friends with managers in other groups or teams if they share the ranking slots with your boss and determine together how to distribute their slots.

Also, be aware of the HR policy regarding how they assign the rankings.

There should be a written definition of how the ranking system works.

You want to make sure that you clearly demonstrate what is needed to have the top 10 percent ranking in your review.

Knowledge is your ally here.

It also doesn’t hurt to let your boss know that you are aiming for a top ranking.

This will create extra pressure on him in any political situation where he might have been tempted to throw you under the bus.

Ultimately though, regardless of what you do, you might… get screwed.

It’s true.

In that case, appeal.

But, even then, you can’t guarantee a positive outcome.

Just do the best you can, make sure you the make the best case possible, and understand that there are some things you just can’t control.

Good luck!