Most larger businesses have annual (or even semi-annual) performance reviews. In our workplace, the employees are expected to initiate the process by filling in the intranet forms and scheduling a meeting with their manager.

Generally, the manager already has a performance grade in mind that determines the year's bonus payment, so the meeting is mostly a chance for the employee to calibrate his perception of his performance against the manager's.

Because the grade affects the bonus payment, of course everybody tries to convince the manager to raise the grade a notch. This introduces an aspect of timing. It's the classic situation:

  • If you go first, the manager will not have spent all bonus resources yet, but if you go last, there will be nothing left to bargain about.
  • On the other hand, the meetings are discussed unofficially in the team. So by going last you might be able to present a winning argument that emerged during the discussions.
  • At the same time, people don't openly coordinate their scheduling, so it's difficult to aim for a specific position in the sequence of manager meetings. You can only hope to be among the first (by proactively scheduling that meeting), or among the last (by not scheduling until being reminded twice).

What are the benefits and drawbacks of going first, or last, in that sequence? What factors could help an employee decide whether to be first, or last, in the manager meetings?

I'm reposting this because I got a server error while posting the first time. If it ends up being a dupe, I'll remove one of them. (Yes, I lost the text so I had to retype it! This time, I'll Ctrl-A Ctrl-C before submitting. Live and learn.)

  • 1
    Are you sure that there is a fixed budget for bonuses? What if all employees dramatically exceed expectations of them?
    – Dibstar
    Jan 9, 2013 at 16:28
  • 2
    The best decision may depend on whether or not your performance has actually been good this year :-) Jan 9, 2013 at 20:07
  • @Dibstar: Unfortunately, yes. There's a fixed sum for the company that is divided down through the org chart. Each department's grades are expected to fit a predefined bell curve. That means that only X employees can achieve a double- or triple-A rating, while somebody must be given a B and C grade. (There had been cases of misuse in an earlier system where whole teams got triple-A grades. This is no longer possible.) Jan 10, 2013 at 7:28
  • I seriously doubt any skilled manager would change (or inform you of the change) their rating of you right after or during your meeting with them.
    – onnoweb
    Jun 5, 2019 at 19:08

4 Answers 4


OK - I'm going to take this in another direction. How about instead of finding a best argument strategy for this year's raise, you figure the best way to harvest information out of your manager for next year's - so you know what he really thought you could do better, and you and he start agreeing on what "better" looks like?

I say this, because while you may find a way to game the system up or down a notch, the real key to making more money in the long term is simply doing better work. If you walk into the meeting as a real all-star, you won't really need to worry about whether you go first or last - you'll know that your performance review will be a big "atta boy!" and it'll be followed by hopefully some good money!!

On the fly adjustment

Having been a low level manager in two organizations, I'll say honestly that changes (even very small ones) in a performance rating was NEVER something I could do on the fly. When I had to provide the manager-review part of the performance review, I have always had to vet those ratings back through an organization, as almost any organization with more than 1 manager in it needs some way (always rather flawed) of level setting so a tough manager doesn't thrash his people while an easy to please manager gives everyone super awesome ratings. So - my serious bet is that if the manager can truly change that 1 single important number/rating that means serious money, then you have a very, very rare case on your hands -- at least among a large, somewhat formal, organization.

Meeting Purpose

My strategy here would be that honest feedback giving from manager to employee is tough. I don't know a single manager who is perfect at it - we all have flaws, and for almost everyone it's also emotionally exhausting. Being fair, clear, honest and specific about an employee's shortcomings is hard work, and most managers are not well-versed in it or well practiced, and very very few were promoted to technical management because they were good at this part of the work (most are good at something technical).

Your single best advantage to play here is to find a time when you can maximize your manager's ability to give you honest feedback. IF you go in there to "sell" him in your skills instead of having a meaningful discussion of how you can better maximize your contribution to the organization, then you are missing out on a real opportunity. Having just had to sit down and go through the process of rating and evaluating everyone, your manager is in the unique end of year position to be clear and honest about what's good and what's bad, and why it matters so much. There's nothing having to brutally compare and defend people's ratings to make a manager far more thoughtful about this than he might be at any other time in the year.

Getting the Meeting you Want

So, if what you really want is to do better and get more meaningful feedback about your work and your potential growth in the organization - here's my thought on a strategy:

  1. Head for the middle - don't be the first where your manager is still getting warmed up for the year in the process of giving feedback (doubly true if this is a new manager who hasn't done this before). Don't be last, as your manager may now suffer from feedback overload and may be too worn down to be insightful or eloquent.

  2. Make notes as you do your part of the review. When I do these, I usually hit on points where I don't really know whether a given aspect of the work was bad or good. Make a note and ask. Also have a thought as to anything you feel particularly strongly about, where it would be a shock to you find out your manager felt completely different. Those are the two areas you'll want to make sure you clarify with your management.

  3. Plan a time when you can accept the feedback. If you think that it'll hose your weekend or make a bad Monday even worse, then head for a time when you think you can welcome and hear constructive criticism. Similarly, if you see that your manager seems to be in his best form in the morning or the afternoon - try to find a time that will work for both of you. Some of my best managers for this have pushed back when I've tried to book the meeting between too many other things in their schedules, because they were smart enough to know that they needed time to prepare.

  4. Get your side of the review to your manager a few days (but not 2 weeks) before the meeting. Enough time to read and prepare, but not so much time that the manager can totally forget it came in. Obviously mileage varies in corporate rules and so forth, but in general, dropping a performance review on your manager's desk an hour before your meeting to go over the material will almost always get you low quality feedback - it's just not enough time to actually form meaningful thoughts.

  5. Have a wish list - if you could do any new work, or any job in the company - what would it be? Why? What makes it a good pick for you and what draws you about that work? Have this in mind so when the review feedback is slim or lacking, you can talk about what you'd like to do next year, and how you can grow yourself to be able to take on that work.

  6. Never let negative feedback go unsupported by evidence or examples. You don't have to be defensive - but asking calmly "can you give me an example?" or "what's the reason for this concern?" if you aren't told is important. Never the manager get away with vague statements you don't understand. Granted, mileage varies - if your review is very positive, don't nitpick the one negative piece of information - instead return to step 5 above. But it's all too common in a negative case for the manager to think he's being clear and for it to be completely unclear to the employee.

Sorry that this isn't a "how do I make my rating be different" answer - in all honesty, if your organization is working well, there should be enough checks and balances in place that gaming the system is harder than changing your behavior to meet or exceed expectations.

  • 2
    +1 I like that you look on the bigger picture! Your real-world insight into managerhood is valuable, and the specific points about the meeting even more so. Thank you! Jan 10, 2013 at 7:40
  • 2
    +1 for looking at the root cause of the issue and taking a longer-term pragmatic approach to the problem
    – Dibstar
    Jan 10, 2013 at 9:22

I would be very surprised if your manager would be doing this "on the fly" during the meeting. Typically this gets done up front with methods like "forced ranking" or "distribution matching". Since the manager is almost always bound by total raise and bonus cap, he/she will need to figure this out up front and then use the meetings mainly to communicate the result and talk about things you may want to do differently in the future.

Your best shot to impact the outcome is in your initial self review, in any 3rd party feedback that you can garner and in your regular one-on-ones with your manager. There really shouldn't be any surprises or major misalignment during the actual review meeting. It's perfectly okay to ask "what can I do to get to grade X" or "how am I doing against my goal to get grade X" on a regular basis but that needs to happen way before the review.

Sorry, it's just a long winded way of saying "it probably doesn't matter at all".

  • You're probably very right. The whole process has an air of "going through the moves" to show good spirit but in reality, 99% of things are already decided. Obviously, aligning frequently during the year is more effective than trying to make a last-minute deal (and I didn't mention that I am aware of this). Jan 10, 2013 at 7:35

I cannot imagine that a manager would make firm adjustment during the course of providing the reviews but would rather wait until all reviews are done and then, perhaps, make a final change.

If that is right for your organization, then there are two types of cognitive biases you may want to consider: Primacy Effect and Recency Effect. These two theories have some support about how people recall based on what comes first and what comes last. Things in the middle disappear from memory.

The way I read the theories, it seems recency effect might be more powerful. So, applying this to your situation, it may be valuable to wait until the end of the reviews and build your case then. When your boss goes back to the drawing table, your case will be on the top of his memory...or so the theory says. Whatever you do, don't go in the middle. :)


Benefits of going first:

  • Less time to worry about what will be said.
  • Show initiative to get things done quickly as this wasn't left till the last minute.
  • No precedence has been set yet

Benefits of going last:

  • Most time to spend preparing.
  • Could use the feedback of other meetings

Drawback of going first:

  • No previous meeting information to use.
  • Could be seen as someone to shoot first and ask questions later.
  • Least time to prepare.

Drawback of going last:

  • By nearly being forced to have this meeting, one could be seen as unambitious.

Factors to determine where someone wants to go:

  • Time preparation - Does one want the most or the least?
  • Perceptions - Would one want to be seen as the first to do something or be dragged in the end?

My personal choice would be to either be amongst the first or go before the first round of reminders are sent out which I'd see as the middle ground here.


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