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I've recently started a new job. I've just had my first formal end-of-cycle review from my manager after about 4 or 5 months, where we are given a performance score. They were thankfully very transparent, but there was something that has been bothering me about it.

The specific feedback in my review before we got to a final score was uniformly positive. Several examples and testimonies from peers about how I go above and beyond. How I'm reliable. That I'm a uniquely talented member of the team that gives important mentorship to others. That people specifically seek me out to work with over others. I made sure to ask "what can I be doing better?" and there was no answer.

There were other things not specifically called out but that we were both fully aware of and discussed verbally. That I covered for several team members when they were out-of-office during critical moments. That I put in nights and weekends to hit a tight deadline. I've filled in nearly every gap the team has had, and people have thanked me for it profusely across ours and other teams.

Pretty nice right? I've worked really hard to cultivate this reputation is such a brief time period, often to the point of burning out in certain ways in my personal life. So I was very surprised when the final score read "Meets expectations," rather than "exceeds expectations" or something even higher.

I put a lot of stock into my performance reviews; I have never gotten below "exceeds expectations" and I know it's been a big part of how I've gotten to this level of my career. So I immediately said to my manager: "The math isn't quite adding up here. Is there anything I should be doing that I'm not? It sounds like everyone is pleased with how I've gone above and beyond, so I'm a little confused."

They said back to me, "that's all true. You just haven't been here long enough to justify a higher rank here."

I'm starting to wonder if there's something I'm not being told; but regardless, it is really bothering me. Why was I given a review at all if it's impossible to rise above the complete baseline? Is my manager being dishonest somehow? I was never expecting a raise; I agree that's too soon. But to give me a rank that is penalized for something beyond my control feels like a breach of trust.

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty demotivated to continue my extremely hard work to be the best I possibly can; if I'm going to get the same score no matter what I do (as long as I don't totally check out) then why should I work this hard?

I'm working up the nerve to go back to my manager with a more palatable digest of these thoughts, but I wanted to ask you all if I'm really making a mountain out of a molehill or what. Am I putting too much stock into a simple score like this? Aside from that, I felt pretty good about all the praise I was given.

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  • @Gantendo I understand your thoughts here, and it’s true that I may take a little too much stake in reviews like this. I take a lot of pride in my work though. While we all struggle with work/life balance, I’m not sure I agree that stressing a bit on an annual review for a few days means I’m in an unhealthy scenario. I came here for a little perspective. Overall, I think the lesson here is to keep perspective on my own output and not worry too much about bureaucratic rubrics—positive or neutral.
    – Eee
    Apr 25, 2023 at 4:21
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    Taking pride in your work is good, but I do hope you can recognize the red flags in the stuff you wrote above. Burnt out employees are useless to a company and not much fun for their family. Focus on your own life, and stop caring so much about what managers think.
    – user135112
    Apr 25, 2023 at 4:28
  • @Gantendo good advice, I’ll try to heed it.
    – Eee
    Apr 25, 2023 at 4:43
  • A lot also depends on the verbiage that goes with the rankings and/or their numerical value. I've had reviews where the verbiage would indicate a full 'rank' or 'star' above what I actually received. Also, your salary is your guide? Did you get an increase? Apr 25, 2023 at 13:00
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    This question is unanswerable because we do not, and cannot, know the standards for performance appraisals at this company.
    – Ian Kemp
    Apr 25, 2023 at 20:50

8 Answers 8

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As you've described, I would say this is definitely molehill and not mountain territory.

Firstly - There is nothing wrong with meets expectations - you are doing your job in a satisfactory matter. I know you mentioned you always gets exceeds, but there's nothing wrong with meeting what the expectation is.

But secondly - this is the line that really seals it for me: 4-5 months and 'you haven't been here long enough to justify a higher grade' - absolutely agree here.

There is nothing malicious or wrong about this statement - in the first 3 months in any new role, you are learning how that particular business operates. The quirks and nuances etc. That realistically leaves 1-2 months of actual productive work to judge your performance - it's not enough.

From what else you've written, it sounds like you are a chronic over-achiever (absolutely nothing wrong with that) but this is the first time you've not been told you are special and you are (forgive the phrasing) throwing a bit of a tantrum about it.

My Advice then is to brush this off - I've had managers that were generous on a first review if they hadn't been managing me for more than a year, I've had managers who have straight up said 'I'm ranking you as meets expectations because I don't have the info to rate you higher or lower' - and whilst it can be annoying (especially if you've been busting ass to get a review pay rise...) - it is fair and common.

Pick yourself up and do your best and demonstrate to your management your worth as an employee. If at the next round, they still don't rate you as high as you think - then perhaps there are other factors at play - but at this stage - I think you are over-reacting.

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    "There is nothing wrong with meets expectations" This depends on the company and their culture. In some companies, failing to exceed expectations is failing to meet expectations. This is why you should always give your Uber driver a 5 star rating unless they seriously screw you over.
    – nick012000
    Apr 23, 2023 at 22:38
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    I appreciate the gut-check. I still think it’s silly to even give me a score if I can’t possibly hit the ceiling; but hearing someone else concur with what I was told at least gives me some solace that it’s more about an awkward entry time into the system than anything I personally did or didn’t do. I am used to giving and receiving constructive criticism, so not getting any with that score was just a little jarring. Your explanation really helps though, thank you!
    – Eee
    Apr 24, 2023 at 3:38
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    @Eee another consideration: at some orgs there's a perf rating curve much like a grading curve in school: as a manager you are allowed to give out x number of top ratings, 1.5x exceeds, and 5x meets (or whatever numbers a standard distribution would imply, you get the idea). If I were your boss, and the org was that kind of org, I would struggle "wasting" one of my rare higher ratings I'm allowed to hand out on someone brand new vs. giving it to one of my existing reports who (again given the constraints) may be overdue for some organizational love. Next cycle that person will hopefully be you Apr 24, 2023 at 13:37
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    "sounds like you are a chronic over-achiever (absolutely nothing wrong with that)"... Yes there is something wrong with that. See above: "often to the point of burning out in certain ways in my personal life."
    – user135112
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:20
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    It's worth noting that it's not possible to constantly be exceeding expectations. Every time you exceed the existing expectations, you will end up setting new ones to match with your workload, so you have to constantly be one-upping yourself in order to be constantly exceeding expectations. Sooner or later, you will run into a wall where you just don't have anymore to give, and in the worst case scenario, you will quickly burn out. Companies that always push their employees to exceed expectations are companies that will have a high turnover.
    – Abion47
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:20
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I understand you weren't expecting an increase so soon, but many companies require a close connection between performance review ratings and pay increases. Part of the reason is that companies want to ensure that they are treating all employees fairly regardless of race, gender, orientation, etc. Part of the reason is that they want to save money by making it more difficult for managers to give salary increases.

Suppose there is someone else on the team that is due a salary increase. The manager rates them as "exceeds expectations", which will help them make the case to their manager that the increase is justified. But if you also get an "exceeds expectations" rating, then their manager will probably argue that the other person isn't outperforming you, so the increase isn't justified.

For now, I would take your manager's explanation at face value. It sounds plausible to me. Later on, if you feel you are due a pay increase and are still getting "meets expectations", then that would be the time to worry.

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    That’s actually an extremely insightful idea about holding back for other peers. Managers look like clowns if their whole team is “exceeding expectations,” so it’s best to save them for the ones overdue on salary increases. There are a few folks on the team that have been at the company for a while, and we all know what that can do to a pay ceiling. Thank you for the perspective. I can hold my ego in a little if it means someone else can finally get their due; I’m paid enough.
    – Eee
    Apr 24, 2023 at 3:34
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    In addition to the point made by mhwombat, as an example, in my company "exceeding expectations" is directly tied to a salary increase. So if your manager didn't want to give you an increase (yet), they would automatically have to lower your rating to "successful", regardless of your teams' performance. However, telling this directly to an employee can be demotivating.
    – Davy
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:36
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It's the norm in some large organizations to start every employee out on a score of "Average" or equivalent. Treat their first year as the period to set the expectations.

You could clarify with others if it's common to get "Meets expectations" for the first year regardless of actual performance.

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    So then OP is setting expectations right now, and might have to go even further above and beyond next year to get an "exceeds expectations"?
    – user20925
    Apr 25, 2023 at 19:57
  • @user20925 It's not as sinister as it sounds. High expectations will lead to getting high-profile projects, which make it easier to get a high rating. Low expectations will lead to layoff prospects. But yeah, high performance early on is likely to lead to more challenging work later.
    – Therac
    Apr 25, 2023 at 20:03
  • @Therac That just sounds like even more reason for the OP to get an 'Exceeds Expectations' commendation. If I'm the one being put on the hard projects, but the worse employees only working on easy stuff gets the raises instead of or just as much as me, then I'd be rightly angry. The employee doing more work than the rest deserves to be rewarded appropriately May 18, 2023 at 11:57
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Some of this depends on the culture of the organization. There are many scenarios under which this is nothing to worry about. For example, some companies are deliberately very stingy with giving out "Exceeds Expectations" ratings; for example, at my organization, it's extremely rare to be given more than 2 (or, in unusual cases, 3), even for excellent performers. It would be practically unheard-of to be given "Exceeds Expectations" ratings across the board, even for high-performing employees. I'd encourage you not to read too much into this (especially if your overall feedback is good).

Also, working hard solely to get a raise and/or "Exceeds Expectations" review is a form of extrinsic motivation. I'd encourage you to read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, which shows the numerous problems associated with being motivated by external rewards.

If you're motivated primarily by external rewards, you'll find work much less enjoyable overall, and you'll likely find yourself unmotivated if management isn't holding out a carrot (which is exactly where you find yourself).

I'm not saying that this will necessarily happen to you, but as a further caution: at worst, being motivated by external rewards can lead to dishonest or even outright criminal behavior in order to secure the reward. See, for example, Wells Fargo's fake account scandal, which resulted in the bank being filed over $3 billion; the bank's reward structure encouraged people to take any means necessary to meet their quotas. Another classic example of this was a 2014 scandal at the Veteran's Administration, where management went to great lengths to hide long wait times. This was strongly incentivized by their bonus structure.

I'd encourage you to read Drive by Daniel Pink and Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci.

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  • While we are doing book recommendations, maybe read (the title of) that famous book by Mark Manson called "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck"
    – user135112
    Apr 24, 2023 at 22:28
  • I was thinking to write an answer around (negative/inadvertent) gamification - i.e. if employees know that they might get a raise if they exceed expectations, they will game the system to find out what exactly "exceed expectations" means and do that to the detriment of their actual job. Unless the job is really amenable to be measured objectively (i.e., sales, with hard money to back up the actual expectations), this can lead to really bad results. Your answer goes in this direction, maybe some sentence about "gaming the system" fits in there?
    – AnoE
    Apr 25, 2023 at 14:04
  • @AnoE Even with something like sales, incentives can give a perverse incentive to engage in dishonest or criminal activity. I haven't seen any studies to that effect, but I would assume that people who are highly motivated by external rewards are at greater risk in that regard. Apr 25, 2023 at 14:19
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    @AnoE: That is inevitable. You get the behavior you motivate. Trying to obfuscate how the system works is just giving the home team advantage to people who've been with the company longer. It doesn't actually fix anything, and it runs the risk of damaging employee trust in leadership (i.e. "the promo system is a black box so I may as well slack off and take a Meets, because I was just going to get it anyway"). The best way to deal with this is to align the employee's incentives with the company's objectives - i.e. give raises to people who benefit the company.
    – Kevin
    Apr 26, 2023 at 1:22
  • All too true, @EJoshuaS-StandwithUkraine and Kevin.
    – AnoE
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:02
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What ratings mean can vary wildly between companies. In some everyone is above average or gets fired. In others working at your expected level will be classified as meeting expectations no matter how many extra hours/etc you put in, with a higher score only given out as part of the promotion process:

"that's all true. You just haven't been here long enough to justify a higher rank here."

Implies to me that your new employer does things similar to the latter practice rather than the former.

I'd suggest having a talk with your supervisor about how it's review system uses the expectations value, and - if as I suspect it's not something that they use for normal reviews - how they do indicate that they see you as working above and beyond in some fashion since that appears to be the validation you're seeking.

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When considering what "meets expectations" means, there are two aspects of culture that you should consider that vary between businesses and teams.

First, there's a sense of absolute vs relative:

  • On an absolute scale, your demonstration of expectations is done compared to someone who is in your job title steady-state. A rubric might be involved in your evaluation there. As you are new to a job, it is possible but difficult to "exceed expectations": even if you are doing impressive work given your short tenure, you might still not be exceeding expectations compared to where you will be a year from now.
  • On a relative scale, you might be rated better sooner given your short tenure, but there's more of a chance that you would see a downgrade to "meets expectations" as your expectations increase along with your tenure.

Also, there's a sense of stable vs momentary evaluation:

  • A stable rating changes slowly over time. It might take you a while to get to "exceeds expectations", but once you're there, you wouldn't revert quickly to "meets" if you shift knowledge domains or need to prioritize outside-of-work time differently.
  • A momentary rating might see you suddenly do "exceeds expectations" work with less lag, but you might see your rating drop more quickly as well.

Of course, these are spectrums, not exact binary choices, but there are some advantages to a more stable system where it might take a little while to overcome the "inertia" that keeps you at your current level (or that keeps you at your desired next level). It may provide more context for the statement "just keep doing what you're doing and you'll get 'exceeds' next time", as you may just need a little extra time to demonstrate the sustainability and consistency of your performance level.

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I can absolutely understand your frustration here. But as your employer has told you - you have not been there long enough to realistically assess your performance.

During my career, I have met a lot of young, newly hired employees who almost worked themselves to death during their first months. But they usually could not keep up this pace of work for a longer time. Sooner or later, they went back to their "normal" performance.

I think your employer has well noticed your efforts, but they also know that many people want to give a good impression when they start a new job. You work a lot, but perhaps they are pretty sure you will not be able to continue with this for a longer time. Not because you are so weak, but because nobody can. Before giving you an "exceeds expectations", they want to see who you really are.

You write that your social life has already suffered. Honestly - do you really want to go on with this for years? If you want to be a really good employer, you have to find a performance level you can keep up for a longer time without burning out or breaking down.

But now is the time to show them that you are a really good employer, not just a flash in the pan. If I were you, I would do the following:

  1. Show them that you are able to deal with disappointments. Do not complain about this review, do not be miffed. Relax, be friendly and go on with your work.

  2. Ask yourself what your motivation is. Of course everybody wants to be rewarded for their work from time to time, but employees who work mainly for money and praise will end up in a burn-out sooner or later. Ask yourself what you like about your work, and show your employers that you like it.

  3. Try to find your optimal performance level - a level where you can do good work without destroying your life. Don't forget - life is an ultra marathon, not a sprint.

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The rationale's bull. Talk to your manager, but before that, know what you really want and why.

TL;DR:

  1. Sketchiness of this answer and how it differs from others - why I treat your words at face value
  2. "not long enough" is bull
  3. YOUR expectations are?

Sketchiness - feel free to bypass

This answer will be sketchy, since we don't know:

  1. Company's feedback culture / perf appraisal standards: Ian Kemp's comment under your question.
  2. Company's scale: Therac's answer states a certain approach "for some large orgs".
  3. Can newcomers ever get more than you did: Therac's answer as well
  4. If the company has guidelines and "pools" or "restrictions" on higher ratings: Jared Smith's comment to The Demon Lord's answer
  5. Is this rating tied to raises and is there somebody due for one: excellent point by mhwombat and Dan
  6. Your teammates performance and your manager's situation and position on the totem pole. Budget access, teammates expectations, how did others perform, past promises made, this may play a role.

The excellent answers you so far got looked at potential reasons you might've missed. I'll instead take your words at face value, not looking deeper or not trying to zoom out to see the bigger picture.

You haven't been here long enough is bull

There are expectations for new employees. You can meet them or exceed them. In my career once I had been a gatekeeper for new employees and had to rate them after a month, then two, and three. Each case that exceeded expectations had been very easy to spot and defend after third month. You basically look at reliability, diligence, conscientiousness with few tailored checks for specific skills/others. Cases of such excellent employees not getting their deserved rating still happened. Due to raises' schemes or ratings' restrictions.

Your feedback states clearly, that you've exceeded what was expected. Your manager agrees, right until that moment it was supposed to go into company systems and be official. There, right there, your manager had a different feeling, and decided, that an employee who does their job, provides rare mentoring, puts in overtime, is widely (uniformly even) praised by peers and others alike - "meets expectations".

That's bull, unless "meets expectations" was redefined in your company's dictionary. AND IF IT WAS, the feedback wouldn't be so gushing, so positive. Especially the part about preferring you to other employees. If people specifically seek you out over others, then you are their first choice. Not one of many choices, but first. So unless said others do NOT meet expectations, you exceed them.

IMO your manager could've handled this better (remember, sketchy answer that lacks plenty of info).

Manage your expectations

Why the drive? That's what you need to know. Gantendo (and others) worry about you and your work-life balance, rightly noting you have sacrificed life for work. I feel you might have your reasons but what are they?

You feel you went the extra mile: covering for others, nights and weekends. You were AIMING for higher than meets expectations. At the very least, this needs to be known and said to your manager. Because they need to know if they mismanaged the situation (a possibility, we're all human) and follow-up if they did. Perhaps better prepare your next feedback meeting. Perhaps tell you clearly what to do so you can achieve your wanted goal. Perhaps put you to use to achieve their goals (kinda exploit your drive) and also put you in a different rubric than a regular 9-5 employee, because you clearly don't want to be one. And at some point you WILL want that raise.

If you tell them and nothing like that happens, you will then know that your extra mile is welcome, but makes no difference. Now? It's too early to say.

it is really bothering me.

You were told A, but have been graded as B, and the reasons elude you (due to in no small part to how they were conveyed). You're NOT the only person who's treating this as a breach of trust, I've seen this play out often. Note that management (any leadership really) rarely can reveal all the cards that they have. Manage your expectations, don't expect full transparency - or do expect it and ask for it, and be prepared for a "no" in some cases.

Summarizing

While others (and I in the "sketchy" part above) told you why your manager might be right, he might be wrong. I feel he's wrong, or rather, that he has reasons untold for his rating. Your job is to tell him you want that higher grade, that it's important to you, and find out what you're missing (seniority? then how much?).

This untold reason for the rating perhaps can be explained clearer, now or next time, but only if your manager knows/understands you care about this as much as you do. Or it cannot, and you'll at least know where are the limits of transparency.

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