The primary purpose of a performance review is exactly what it sounds like: It’s an opportunity for your employer to tell you how you’re doing. But while a quarterly or annual sit-down is certainly a good time to get feedback, you aren’t doing yourself any favors if feedback is all you hope to get out of it. It’s also a chance for you, the employee, to look forward, and to get some tips on how you can grow both in your specific role and in your career, overall.
“Think about it in three buckets,” says executive coach Meg Myers Morgan, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Everything is Negotiable. “It’s about the work you do now, the work you’re striving to do later, and the relationship you’re having with your manager.” A good manager will give you the space to ask about all of those things. That way, you’ll leave your review not just informed of your past performance, but armed with the tools to improve upon it in the future, which can altogether help keep you more engaged and happier at work.
In order to achieve this, though, you need to come prepared. If your manager asks if you have any questions, don’t just stare at them blankly. For one thing, you want to show them that you take your job and career seriously. For another, this is a rare chance to ask for things that you want. And as a bonus, the more you prepare, the less jittery you’ll be in the actual review. “Everybody feels nervous going into a performance evaluation. It’s like being called into the principal’s office,” Morgan says. “I advise thinking through what you want to say before you go in there, so you don’t get nervous and forget your side of it.”
Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources, suggests doing some self-assessment in advance of your review (if you’re not sure what that entails, there are lots of sample employee evaluations online). “I encourage employees to do a temperature check on how they think they’re doing,” Klein says. “What is it that the company really values, and how does my role fit in to what the company does? What are the core values of the people that work there? How is the work that I’m doing impacting the attaining of the company’s goals?”
Once you’ve got a rough idea of where you stand, it’s time to come up with your questions. To get you started, here are some of the best ones to ask, no matter what your role in the company.
“How is my performance relative to your expectations?”
You don’t just want to know where you fall on a scale of one to five — you want to know exactly how your employer is defining one, five, and all the scores in between. “It’s important that you hear not just how you’re doing, but how close are you to the bar, and how high the bar is,” Klein says.
For instance, you may think you’re doing well because you write four blog posts a day, but it turns out the company would like you to write five. Or you’ve hit X number of sales targets, but your manager draws the line for success at Y. “If you’re a customer-service rep for Home Depot, what is your rating after a call with a customer? If you’re a dental hygienist, how healthy are your patients that get your care?” Klein says. “It’s about understanding what the metric is.”
“What other metrics are you using to assess how I’m doing?”
Sometimes performance reviews can be frustratingly formal and vague, with ratings systems for generalized categories like time management and productivity. But as Morgan points out, your manager may also be evaluating more specific aspects of your performance without you even realizing it.
“I had a client whose emails were really curt, and she just didn’t know it,” Morgan says. Though something that mild might not come up in your review unprompted, it’ll be helpful for you to ask, especially because every manager pays attention to different things. If you know what bothers yours, you can tackle those small issues before they become larger ones.
“What do you see are my strengths? What do you see are my weaknesses?”
Jennifer Kraszewski, vice president of human resources at the online human resources provider Paycom, says you shouldn’t shy away from asking your manager for specific feedback, even on smaller things like past projects. “It’s very important for the employee to be comfortable asking their leader, ‘What things can I improve upon? What things am I doing well on? What does my growth track look like within my department?’” she writes in an email. “And leaders should be able to speak to all of those things.”
And if you’re comfortable doing so, you should feel free to press your manager for more detail when it comes to addressing your weaker areas. “If your leader does not give specific feedback about what you can improve upon, continue to ask for those examples,” Kraszewski says. “Some leaders are not as good at giving constructive feedback as others, so if you don’t get those specifics, it’s harder for you as an employee to know where you need to improve.”
“What are the skills and traits that I need to get to the next level?”
Even if you’re not on track for a promotion, you should be constantly striving to move up. This shows your employer you care about your job, your company, and your career, and it’ll also help you feel more engaged in all three.
“So much energy is spent on low performers to get them to expectations,” Klein says. “If you get a stellar review, you should say, ‘Fantastic, what can I do to get myself prepared to grow my role even more? Is there a mentor externally or internally you can recommend? Is there a class I can take? What core experiences do I need?’”
This is also a good time to ask how you can help strengthen your team, particularly if you had a good review. “Deep down, what every leader wants to do is surround themselves with really strong people so they themselves can grow their own career,” Klein says. “If an employee asks, ‘How can I help you be successful, or help the department be more successful, or can I be part of an initiative?’ every leader loves for an employee to ask how they can help success happen.”
“What is in the budget for professional development?”
It sounds presumptive to ask your manager for company money, but it can actually be a great way to show that you’re proactive. If your manager thinks you need to improve in specific areas, it’s fair to ask them if there are any resources available to help you do that. For instance, if public speaking isn’t your strength, you could ask if you could work with a coach. If you’d like to improve your design skills, perhaps there’s money in the budget for a class.
Note that it’s extra helpful to offer your manager some concrete suggestions for ways they could invest in you, rather than just asking what they suggest. “Leaders have 25 things in their inbox that have to be answered and dealt with at any given time,” Klein says. “If an employee comes to the performance review and says, ‘I’ve given this thought, I have this ask,’ it saves time.”
“Can we talk about my compensation?”
Typically, a performance review is an appropriate time to ask for a raise. “You should ask if there’s any opportunity to increase your salary. It’s a fair question to ask during a review time,” says David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work. But if you’re going to ask for more money, make sure you come armed with the reasons you deserve it.
“Make sure you’ve got strong market research or a value you’ve brought to the organization,” Morgan says. “You can say, ‘I think I’ve contributed in these ways and I’m interested in looking for raise this year, is that possible?’”
“Then,” she adds, “the goal there is to be very quiet.”