How am I doing, Boss?

Aug. 30, 2023

It’s performance appraisal time. Lucky you. It’s that dreaded event where your HR department proudly manages your input to and progress through the process. Now, if you decided against my considered advice and got into private consulting as described in my last article, this won’t apply to you. But you are not spared. Your performance review comes when you get the call your services are no longer required. It’s far less painful but is certainly more impactful.

But if you’re on a corporate payroll, you have a tedious process that begins and ends with lots of extra work for you. One place I was employed even referred to it as the performance appraisal ‘season,’ accurately implying months of annoying agony twice a year. To minimize the effort required of your superiors and the HR people, you will be required to do most of the writing. It usually starts with your self-appraisal.

The self-appraisal is an exercise in creative writing. We all know we aren’t perfect and the job, like every job, is fraught with challenging requirements we may find difficult to fulfill. But when you sit to write your self-appraisal, you know you need to come across as an irreplaceable employee and key team member while still sounding somewhat objective by acknowledging a few areas for improvement. That can be a fine line to walk. Too positive a write-up will cause eye rolls up the chain while being too negative will provide dangerous fodder for your personnel file. And it’s you who has to find that line.

The Prose That Knows

Back in the unenlightened past when I was a military NCO, I had to write the performance appraisals on all my troops. It was a two-page form on which the only input from the rate was their signature acknowledging receipt of said appraisal. The creative writing exercise was heaped on the shoulders of the supervisor instead of the poor sap in the trenches. I must admit I found writing the turgid military prose stifling after a while and decided I could write them in the language of 19th-century novelists such as Henry James, Charles Dickens, or George Eliot. Someone up the chain eventually caught on and started demanding I rewrite them in the standard phraseology of the Air Force of the time. I was called out for using words like ‘perspicacious’ and phrases like the Latin ‘sine qua non.’ 

The verbal equivalent of a personal appraisal at the time often consisted of a short phrase loaded with unspoken meaning. If you said, for instance, “Fred’s a good guy,” you were saying a lot more than the few words would convey on a piece of paper. You were personally endorsing Fred and making a high compliment on his character.  Saying, “Sally is a great airman,” carried the same weight of personal advocacy and approval. Of course, this would depend on your personal reputation: something we now call one’s “brand” in these times.

Modern appraisal ‘seasons’ may now take many weeks and ink is spilled in great quantity - if we still wrote with ink. But I am not sure the result is any more beneficial than me turning to a peer and simply stating, “Fred is a good guy.”  Sure, there is unspoken nuance and a long list of Fred’s faults, but none of that need to see the light of a write-up. We all recognized those were part and parcel of being human. You either did your job to the best of your ability or you didn’t. There are far more words in a modern appraisal, but they all carry far less weight.

Before you settle down to your company laptop and begin your self-appraisal, know that these words will likely outlive you and ring hollow. A teacher once wrote about one of those wonderful 19th-century novelists I mentioned earlier. She ended her annual evaluation of a young Charlotte Brontë with these words: “She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar.”  Likely no one could tell you the name of that teacher.

About the author: John McCumber is a seasoned cybersecurity executive with over 25 years of progressive experience in information assurance and cybersecurity operations, acquisition, management, and product development. Expertise in corporate security policy development and implementation of security in information technology design. Recent experience working with Congress on cybersecurity legislation and professional advocacy. He is a long-time columnist with Security Technology Executive magazine and a contributing writer at Ordinary Times. John is a retired US Air Force officer and former Cryptologic Fellow of the National Security Agency. During his military career, John also served in the Defense Information Systems Agency and on the Joint Staff as an Information Warfare Officer during the Persian Gulf War.

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