The preparations I made for my annual performance review at work were simple. I was going to say as little as possible while my boss sat in judgment of me. I would allow my mutism to serve as a silent protest against corporate culture, rampant capitalism, globalization and the same measly raise I heard everyone was getting, regardless of how well they did their job.
We actually have a pretty enlightened system in our company, even though it seems to change every year. A manager will look at objective data on your job skills and work habits, then assemble a smattering of buzzwords like “teamwork” and “communication” and “doesn’t mind being touched” onto a template. These phrases are read aloud as you follow along in your copy, much like the Lutheran church services of my youth, except you don’t have to stand and be seated at random points. (Also, worshipping the almighty leader is optional). At the end, you’re given a piece of paper with the only information you really care about, your new hourly rate.
Your active contribution to the process doesn’t have to amount to much at all. In one of the previous systems we had, the employee was required to evaluate themselves in about two dozen categories, including skills that seemed irrelevant to financial document analysis, like hopscotch and clay modeling. You had to come up with several sentences on each topic, then pick a number between one and six to rate yourself (one being “peak performer,” but secretly also the percentage of your increase). Objectivity was encouraged, so you had people admitting they let their sister’s boyfriend borrow the company helicopter, just to lend a ring of truth so that the rest of their self-promoting answers sounded plausible.
They also tried this thing one year called the “360 review,” wherein they’d solicit feedback on your accomplishments from your peers as well as your underlings. It was good to hear that Nancy in the next cubicle admired my organizational skills, but I could’ve done without knowing that Rick the janitor thought I discarded too much facial tissue.
In the end, whatever song-and-dance you prepared didn’t really matter, so now it’s all a one-way meeting. You can speak if you like, coming to your own defense in the matter of unexcused absences or admiring the splendid cut of your manager’s suit. I imagine you could bring an attorney if you want, though on balance I’d imagine that’s not a good idea. Or you can just sit there and take it like a man, and get out that much sooner.
My advanced planning consisted of visualizing how I would restrain myself from saying anything that might harm their impression of me as a quiet, conscientious worker. I’m generally not the talkative sort, but for some reason I can get oddly passionate about the most minor issues, and then there goes my carefully constructed facade. One minute, I’m the consummate professional and the next, I’m ranting wildly about how stupid it is that we condone 2-em paragraph indents. Then they think I care, and I end up with some unwanted assignment.
This year, I would remain largely silent. I had practiced diligently at home the night before. I asked my son to throw rocks at me while I stood quietly and took it. I said not a word for virtually the entire evening, though admittedly I was unconscious for much of the period. I even refrained from sleep-talking during a dream in which dogs had invaded the Vatican, and it was my job to get them out.
The next morning, when the person who alphabetically precedes me was called into the office, I made a final review of my strategy. I’d decided that the bowed head and raised fist, as exhibited in the 1968 Olympics black power salute, would be too overt. I couldn’t remain completely silent during the 30-minute session without appearing suspicious, so I’d offer up a few well-placed grunts and moans if it seemed I needed to comment. I’d tell myself I only had 25 words to expend, and that if I went over the limit then Glenn Beck would become our next president.
When my name was called, I passed the desk of a co-worker who’d had her review the previous day.
“You might want to take along some snacks,” she advised. “Maybe some pretzels.”
Our manager was a notoriously long-winded individual who typically got his way in any argument by wearing down his opponent until they had to abandon their position to attend their infant’s college graduation. In previous years, I might’ve at least packed an overnight bag so I could make the point that our vacation scheduling process was too cumbersome. But I had learned my lesson and was determined to remain taciturn.
The session started benignly as I was given an overview of the new salary structure. There was a range and a mid-point and something about skill sets, which prompted me to give a knowing nod. Next he moved on to a new data collection model he was obviously proud of, which showed how many pages I had processed in the previous year. “Hmm,” I observed, which I count as — at most — half a word. Then I heard there’d be some vaguely defined departmental reorganization in the coming months, which I hoped included cleaning out the refrigerator. “Uh-huh,” I said. Hyphenated perhaps, but one word, tops.
Now we were moving on to the piece that had the potential to get heated. Did I realize that my tardiness rate had increased this year? “Hunh,” I said. And I didn’t seem to have the drive to pursue certain projects that I used to. “Ha,” I chuckled. My initiative to seek out pages to read was noticeably sagging. “Well,” I offered, “you know how it is …”.
He returned to positive territory, noting that I was still a much-respected employee and extremely valuable to the company. He hoped that some upcoming corporate initiatives would challenge me, and that I’d rise to those challenges like I’ve always risen in the past, and I thought “I bet you do hope that” but said only “OK.” He looked forward to another productive year working with me, and I again noted “OK”.
We were just about finished, and it looked promising that I wouldn’t have to fake a urinary emergency to get out of there before dinner. He said that our location had been recognized by headquarters as a key component to the company’s success, and that my pay increase was commensurate with my contribution to that success. I thought about how bad our economy had become if my 23-cent-an-hour raise was an accurate reflection of how the company was embracing twenty-first century technology while becoming a leader in markets it chose to dominate.
That’s what I thought. But I said only “thanks, Jim,” and returned to my desk, confident that a Beck administration had been averted, and that I could continue flying under the radar for yet another year.