The Annual Performance Review

Ryan, my boss, walked into my office with a serious look on his face. I looked up from my monitor as he closed the door behind him. “We need to talk about your behavior!” he said, wagging his finger.

“My behavior?” I was trying to sound calm.

He started laughing. “I’m just kiddin’,” he said. I stretched my face into the most credible smile I could manage. “We’re doing your review tomorrow.” I stopped smiling.

Everybody in my company has a review once a year, around the time of when each employee was hired. Because my department has always been behind on reviews, mine usually happened in May or June (I was hired in early March). Ryan’s been with the company for just over a year now and he’s really diligent about company policy. When he saw my review’s due date approaching at the end of February, he kept reminding me that we needed to schedule a date for it. I kept telling him I’d get to it later because I knew I’d be asking for a raise this year and I wanted time to research similar salaries and prepare a statement that I would present to him during my review. For a couple of weeks, his words were, “We need to schedule your review soon.” On this day, he said, “We’re doing your review tomorrow.”—not, “Can we do your review tomorrow?”—”We’re doing your review tomorrow.” 

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out of it, but I tried anyway.

“Can’t we do it next week?” I asked. “I’m still working on January’s reconciliations and I haven’t even had time to do the self-evaluation.”

“Nope.” he said. “I’ve already got Laura and Candace done and I want to get these out of the way.” I was going to have to do all my preparations overnight.

“I’d really rather do it next week.”

“What’s the big deal? All you have to do is the self-eval. It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.”

“Yeah.” I said, “I have some other stuff I have to do also…” He looked at me like I’d just spoken in another language. “… we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

“OK! Great!” he said. He opened the door and walked out of my office.

I’m an accountant for a non-profit in Portland (the only Portland that matters). I’ve been with this company for four years. Because I’m one of only two accountants there, I see almost all of the financials, including payroll, which means I know exactly how much everyone makes. I know that my boss makes about 50 percent more than I do, and that his boss makes almost double that. I know that the CEO makes more than anybody, but not that much more than the CFO. I know that the “executive assistant” (secretary for the executives) makes more than me and she’s only been here for two years. I know that my co-worker who spends all day on Facebook but is buddies with all the executives also makes more than me. And I know that the medical billing staff makes peanuts.

This was basically my first job out of college. I was working for an accounting firm for about three months until the owner couldn’t afford to pay us any longer, and then I got this job. It’s pretty low-stress and the benefits are decent, but that also means I have to make sacrifices in my salary. I understand that, and it’s a fair trade. I’d rather make a few dollars less and have some decent vacation time than have to work 80-hour weeks. I had to keep my expectations reasonable. It wasn’t about money. I have all that I need, and if I had any more money, it would just go into savings or I would spend it on clothes. It was about respect—respect for my place within the company and my value to the company.

Also, maybe it had something to do with other parts of my life not working out so well and wanting to make a move so that at least one thing in my life would be going ok. When you lose a lot, it’s easier to risk losing a little more because, really, what difference does it make at this point?

I went home and stayed up late writing my statement. It said that I enjoyed working for the company and getting to know all the great people there over the last few years. Then it went into what kind of a mess all of the accounting department was in when I started in 2009, and how much I’ve contributed to getting everything on track and keeping it there. Then it asked for a 30 percent raise. It said I knew it was a lot, but that I was taking into consideration what other people with my skills and qualifications are making in the area as well as what other people within the organization are making. It thanked my boss for his time and mentioned something about “looking forward to many more years with the company.” Simple enough, but professional and direct, right? I was careful not to use the word “raise” in this letter. I called it a request for a “salary increase.” I guess that was my way of just slipping it in there. (Subliminal messages or something.)

I saved that document and my self-evaluation (pretty boilerplate stuff about what you struggled with during the year, what you achieved, and what you can work on next year—you know the drill) and emailed them to myself so I could print them at work in the morning before my review at 9:30 a.m.

Let’s talk real numbers for a second. At the beginning of this story, I was making $41,616 per year. I’m on salary, so it’s that number divided by 52 weeks and then again by 40 hours and I’m paid at an hourly rate for 40 hours every week. I don’t have to clock in or out or anything, but that’s how it works. I was hired at $35K in 2009. That was more than I had been making at the accounting firm and more than I’d ever made in my whole life, so I didn’t balk when it was offered, and was really just happy I was going to be able to make rent again.

During my first review in 2010, I was offered a raise—without having to ask—to $40K. Then I had the standard 2 percent raise each of the last two years. Everybody gets that 2 percent, unless they really fuck up. I was going to ask for $55K in my review this year. I knew that was a big jump, but I wanted to shoot a little bit high in case of negotiation. I figured if I started at $55K, even if they talked me down, I’d still be getting a pretty decent raise. They always say that when it comes to asking for money, you can’t get what you don’t ask for. That said, even if I were making $55K, I’d still be the lowest-paid employee in my department by almost $10,000.

I arrived at work at my usual time of 9 a.m. and logged in to print out my paperwork from the night before. My Internet was down, and, apparently, it was only my problem. So when Ryan came to my office at 9:35 a.m. to ask me why we weren’t getting started, I was frantically trying to get online and had to try to sound like I wasn’t just making it all up. He let me sign into his computer and print out my papers from there, but I had forgotten to email myself the self-evaluation. I’d only sent the statement asking for a raise. I assured him I’d definitely filled it out and remembered what I’d written down so we could just go through it verbally and he was nice enough about that part. Then we got started.

Ryan said lots of really positive things about how my work is really good and much better than what’s expected from someone my age and with my kind of experience. He said that I needed to work on my communication skills with the other departments (I hate answering my phone and sometimes can’t hide my disdain when the person I’m talking to is dumb—what do you want from me?). “Ok, this is good!” I thought. Then it was my turn.

I handed him my statement and then basically re-told the same story, but without all the professional language in it. Ryan said he agreed that I should be making more but we were in a tight financial spot lately so he’d have to talk to his boss and the CFO before he could give me an answer. Nevermind that both of them are getting paid enough to drive a BMW SUV—we have to look out for my 30 percent.

“Well, why don’t you send me an email with some bullet points that summarize this letter for me?” he asked. “I’ll take that to Jack [the Director of Finance] and see what we can do.”

He wrapped up the review, and I went back to my office and waited.

And here’s where I started getting upset. I understand a fairly substantial raise has to be cleared with management before it can be approved. But I know all of these guys. I work with them. I talk to the CFO and the Director of Finance every single day. For a long time, before Ryan’s position was created, the Director of Finance was my boss. Why did they all have to discuss my future in a room that didn’t have me in it? This is a non-profit after all. Surely, they wouldn’t so easily fall back on the corporate structure.

That was a Friday. Ryan came into my office on Monday and closed the door behind him again (I hate when he does that).

“So I talked to everybody else,” he said. “Jack says you’re not getting 55. And I agree with him. I did some preliminary research [on the same site I’d used] and it looks like other people in the area with your experience are making around 47 or 48. So I’m going to push for that with everyone. We just have to wait to hear an answer from the CFO and HR. It should take about a week.”

“Ok,” I said, smiling. “Let me know how that goes!”

What was I supposed to say? This wasn’t a flea market deal. I couldn’t come back like, “Ehhh, how ‘bout you give me $50K?” It wasn’t an actual answer, anyway. I couldn’t be upset for something that, so far, was just an idea. I decided to wait. Still, I wasn’t getting what I asked for, and I felt stupid for not only thinking I could get $55K but for going far enough to ask for it. Who did I think I was, anyway? So, I mentioned these problems I’d been having with the entire process.

“I don’t know, I just feel… weird about this being decided in a room I don’t get to be in,” I said. “Especially when I know all of the people in that room.”

Ryan looked me directly in the eye. “Well, that’s just how it works.”

A week later, Ryan came to talk to me again. He closed the door.

“Alright, I got with some people at a company I’ve consulted with before and did some research on your position and similar salaries in the area,” he said. “And … you’re right at the median.”

He handed me some papers with graphs that said the same thing.

“I think we need to get you cross training with Laura [the other accountant] and then we’ll be able to revisit your salary,” he said. “But you two will have to work that process out. I’m a little busy with my responsibilities at the moment. K?”

“Ok,” I said. I didn’t smile. Ryan switched into his higher-pitched voice.

“How’s everything else goin’!?”

“Fine. Just fine.”

Look, I understand. This is what some people would call a “first world problem”. Lots of people get denied for a raise every single day, and most of them deserve it much more than I do. Most of them work really hard and don’t comment on blogs all day. And I still have the exact same job I had three weeks ago. But now I have to move. You don’t just tell someone you’re going to shoot and then not shoot. Now I have to start interviewing again and see if I can get a better offer. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a better offer and be able to use that as leverage to get my current employer to actually give me a raise. Or I’ll just have to go work somewhere else. I don’t want to do that, though. Who knows what kind of mess I’d be walking into? The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

The whole thing kept bothering me, though. I had this nagging suspicion that I wasn’t fairly represented with the management when Ryan presented my case. I know Jack. He’s always been a nice guy. He’s gotta agree with me that I deserve more money. Ryan couldn’t have fought for me enough. I never liked him anyway.

This past Friday, Ryan was out of the office. I walked into Jack’s office (which is directly across from mine).

“Hey! Do you have a second to talk?” I asked. I closed the door behind me.

“Sure, what’s up!?” he said.

“I just wanted to ask you about my review,” I said. “I’m sure Ryan told you that I asked for a raise. And I just wanted to make sure you agreed with his decision.”

“Ahhhh, what was his decision again?” Jack asked.

“He decided not to give me a raise.”

“Oh, alright. I didn’t know that much,” he said. “Well… I don’t know. I think for your age and level of experience, you’re doing pret-ty well. If we get some more cross-training in ya, I’m sure we can see about getting you some more money. Besides, you know what our financial situation is like. We can’t really afford any raises right now.”

On his desk, between us, were the keys to his X5.

“Alright,” I said. “I just… wanted to make sure everybody is on the same page. Thanks!” I smiled, opened the door, and walked out.


Reginal T. Squirge is a man for all seasons. He has a podcast.



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