my company does secret performance reviews that we’re not allowed to see

A reader writes:

My current employer performs secret yearly reviews for the 85 employees at our main location. According to my boss, the owner and his wife simply go down a list of employees and decide how well they did, and if they deserve a raise. I’ve never seen my own review, nor have I been made aware of their contents. The input of my boss is not taken into account, and I have no real way of knowing how well I am doing or what I need to improve upon. Direct questioning about this policy to the owners has been met with evasive answers.

So here’s my concern: How can these reviews and other documents in my personnel record affect me? Am I allowed to see the record or have a copy, or is my company allowed to tell me it’s confidential or worse – no such record exists? Another concern: I’ve seen employees here fired and then have their unemployment contested due to infractions the employee was not made aware of. Can these documents be used against me if I am somehow let go and apply for unemployment? For all I know, they could put anything they wanted there and I would be none the wiser. What happens in a few years when they get called during the interview process and they bring something up I never knew about or they simply made up? The owner is the textbook definition of a “workplace bully,” so please understand that these concerns are simply not hypothetical.

What can I do to protect myself?

I wrote back and asked if the writer knows whether these secret reviews are even written or not, or whether they might simply consist of a conversation between the owner and his wife. He responded:

For all I know, the owners could be sitting in bed each year checking employees off like Santa Claus. I suspect it’s verbal because it’s less work for them and there’s no way an employee can respond.

I suspect it’s verbal too. Written evaluations are a lot of work, and it would be pretty odd to bother producing them if no one was going to see them. So assuming that there aren’t any actual documents being produced here, the question is less about written records in your personnel file and more about how your company evaluates employees in general.

(However, for the record, in many states you’re entitled to review the contents of your personnel file, subject to various restrictions and regulations.)

The real issues here are that (a) your boss, the person in management who should be most familiar with your work, is apparently not involved in evaluating your performance, (b) you’re not being told how your work will be assessed, which means that you don’t know where to focus, and (c) no one is sharing that overall assessment with you, which means that your employer isn’t taking the most basic steps to get good performance out of you. Any one of these on its own would be bad management — taken together, they’re a disaster. I’ve got to think that a company that operates this way is hugely dysfunctional in other ways as well, no?

In any case, if you’re planning to stick it out there, I recommend doing the following:

1. See if your boss is willing to push this issue with the owner. If your boss is a good manager, she should have a real problem with the way this is being handled. Is she willing to take it on as an issue?

Ideally, she’d also be going to her own boss and saying, “Here’s my assessment of Joe’s performance. Here’s my assessment of what he needs to achieve this year to earn a raise. Does this line up with your take?” And after getting aligned with her own boss, she’d be sharing that information with you.

2. Ignore these secret reviews entirely. Get your feedback directly from your boss. You say you have no real way of knowing how well you’re doing or where you should improve, but this is information that you should be getting from your boss totally aside from annual evaluations anyway. Your manager should be giving you feedback on an ongoing basis; you’re not supposed to have to wait to hear it once a year.  (When done well, nothing in annual evaluations should be a surprise, because you should have been getting regular and candid feedback all along.) So pretend these secret evaluations don’t exist and just ask your manager for feedback.

As for your worry that issues you never heard might be raised in unemployment hearings some day, in most states workers can receive unemployment unless they (a) resigned or (b) were fired for gross misconduct. If you’re fired for something in the category of unsatisfactory performance, you should be eligible for unemployment. If you’re fired for falsifying a timecard, embezzlement, walking off the job, serious insubordination, or something along those lines, then you won’t be eligible — but these are the sorts of things you know if you’ve done. In other words, unless they’re making up outright lies, you don’t need to worry that you’ll be denied unemployment because they secretly felt that you wrote a bad memo or didn’t hit high enough sales numbers. (And if they are making up outright lies, you’d probably just need to explain that; unemployment decisions are generally weighted heavily in the employee’s favor. In most states, the default is to award benefits unless there’s a proven reason not to.)

Regarding references, that one’s easy: You should use your manager as a reference, not the owner. Most future employers are going to want to talk to your direct manager anyway, not an owner several levels above you.

Also, this company is really weird. Please share in the comments about what other odd practices they engage in, as I think I speak for everyone in saying that we want to know far more about these weirdos.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Grrrl

    My company also does secretive reviews. You get to see your review, but only after it’s finalized And you’ve received your raise (or not.) Less risk of you disagreeing, I guess.

    1. Anonymous

      Oh, that’s normal (if not quite good) business. The original poster doesn’t even get to hear the review at all. Sounds pretty much like a place I used to work. If it wasn’t for the number of employees, I’d figure it *was* my old job.

      I’m not the original poster, but I think my place was just as entertaining. It was run by a husband and wife team. Some of the highlights included the husband ignoring his duties to spend all day playing grab-ass with the female employees. (Yes, he physically touched them multiple times, and no, the attention was not wanted by the women and they asked him to stop repeatedly.) We’d have to beg him to get him to do anything. Even his wife would have to nag him all day to get something done. He was in charge of ordering, which meant our shelves were usually bare of anything people wanted and full of things nobody had ordered since 2007.

      The wife, on the other hand, was the classical bully/micro-manager. She had to have her nose in everything which slowed down all of the departments and kept us from getting things done. She frequently yelled at everyone for any little mistake, even if it was only a mistake in her eyes, making the work environment very stressful. In fact, she’d use this as a tactic when she wanted to get rid of people by making them quit due to a mental breakdown instead of firing them and taking the hit from unemployment.

      She was an accountant by trade and enjoyed coming up with “loopholes” to skirt the IRS and other out of money. Nothing outrageous, but enough that an IRS audit of the business would have ended up costing them a serious amount of money in penalties. She’d do this in all parts of her life when she didn’t agree with something and felt she could get away with it, including ignoring court orders.

      Nobody was given the authority necessary to do their job, but everyone was responsible for the outcome anyway. The other “managers” and I became very good at making the necessary decisions to keep the company moving and hiding those decisions from the owners. It’s a horrible way to run a business but it was the only way to get anything done. Most of the customers that continued to buy from us did so because we would make those decisions.

      Actually, I think the customers only came back because its a narrow vertical business with few competent competitors. Everyone in this field seems to have some kind of major issue unique to them.

      These owners and businesses do actually exist. These owners hire people who have few options, who are young or have had issues in their life (addiction, self-esteem/self-worth, years out of the workplace) and are more scared of having no job than having this job. These owners pick fields that have few competitors, so their incompetence is tolerated by customers, and that have decent growth, so they always have a steady cash flow to cover for the many mistakes made.

      I think everyone should work at some point in the small business underbelly that’s out there. Those of you coming from large business corporate america would be shocked at how much worse it can get. :-)

  2. Jeremy

    Any company that is that secretive about the performance review doesn’t understand performance management at all and is totally disconnected with helping employees succeed at their job.

    I’d be interested if there has ever been a survey done to find out what percentage of companies operate with this secretive performance review model?

    1. Michelle

      Yeah, I would be interested in that as well. This seems like such a bizarre practice to me.

  3. Anonymous

    I would have to agree that they don’t seem to understand the idea behind performance management. I would think they could see they are actually making their job harder in the long run- if employees don’t know where they need to improve then they won’t.

  4. Anonymous

    I totally agree about the way some family run businesses operate. I always find it funny when people post on here to go to “HR” or “go talk to the owner/manager”. I know people mean well and in a large corporate environment that makes completely logical sense but in these family run organizations there is a point where no one can over come the owner. Where I work we are constantly told to work “efficiently” then the owner goes and buys a new 70K car…or we are told that there is no money for raises…but then a long lost cousin or other family friend is hired..and not expected to follow any rules.

    I realize the logical answer is “find another job” but that is much easier said than done. In my organization department manager have basically given up doing performance reviews of an sort since raises are only given out when someone has an offer to leave. The reason so many stay is because the place is so dysfunctional that there is almost no management so people are basically able to come and go as they please without any accountability. This is by no means a “tiny” company either because there are close to 100 employees. So hearing about the company that does performance reviews between a husband and wife with no real feedback or without any relation to the actual work being done is not shocking. Sad yes…shocking no.

    1. anon

      I completely agree. Family run business are often the worst places to work when it comes to pay, advancement and job security. Often you have entrepreneurs who have no professional understanding of HR or good management. I once started a job at a small business and was unaware that I was replacing the owner’s girlfriend who he fired when they broke up. A year and half later when he reconciled with his girlfriend, I was fired and she got “her” job back. I was left with a scarred resume, and because jobseekers cannot speak ill of former employers I have to attempt to explain why I left the job so soon so that I don’t come off as the bad guy. Will I work for a small company again? NEVER!

  5. Letter Writer

    First off, thanks for answering the question!

    It’s STORY TIME!

    Gather around women and men of all ages and backgrounds while I regale you with stories of horror and mystery!

    Nah, it’s not that exciting. The husband is your typical “I have a PhD and I’m smarter than you and if I say you’re wrong then you’re wrong and I can’t possibly delegate work to anyone else so I’m going to be constantly shuffle people around and then yell at them when they don’t do the work I expect”. It’s really fun when he starts countering legal or industry regulations. He also makes fun of his wife in front of us, it’s really classy. And yes, he yells and makes unreasonable demands and is too cheap to properly staff and equip our departments. Oh, and everything needed to be done yesterday, since management refuses to tell us when a big project is coming up.

    My boss has tried to address the issues I mentioned above, but that turns into a family argument. He really does his best to shield my department from the owner, but he can only do so much.

    Without going into too much detail, please understand that the business I work for is one that is pretty much recession proof, and has been growing constantly over the past several years. Now while one might expect that benefits would grow, that’s simply not the case. Instead, the walls of the office are filled with fine art. Like, original lithographs and oil paintings of artists many would actually recognize. These are changed out on a regular basis. It’s normally something I would enjoy, but it’s hard not to think about my retirement account in the process. In the rare case a raise is given, you’re not told about it. You have to look at your pay stub every time and see if the number has changed.

    Also, there is no such thing as a promotion. The owner has refused to allow employees to obtain useful certifications, and there is no such thing a II or III and so on. Sure, people will gain promotions to direct specific departments, but these are categorically refused due to the fact they are responsible for their former jobs as well and receive no pay/benefit increases. People are judged on the face time with the owner, so if you’ve been assigned a lonely corner to quietly work, you’re screwed.

    Oh, and one last thing: the salaried folks are required to show up for no less than eight hours every weekday, and around half a day on Saturday. You cannot make up time during the week, so if you work 7 hours on Monday and 9 hours on Tuesday, you own an hour of PTO.

    Suffice it to say, I think everyone here can guess how I spend my free time…

  6. Joey

    You know, this is not that out of the ordinary for small businesses, especially young ones, or at least those with a leader that lacks solid management experience. An entrepreneur with a good idea doesn’t necessarily equate to a good manager. Ive seen tons of small businesses with shady or virtually nonexistent accounting and/ or good management practices. If you don’t want to leave the best thing to do is play the game- that is emulate the people that get raises. This usually means brown nosing and/or pretending you’re best buddies with people you actually hate. Treat it as a means to an end, accept that you have a great job, but work for a crappy company.

  7. Anon

    I just saw this article about “Secrets of HR Managers” that stated “Once you’re unemployed more than six months, you’re considered pretty much unemployable.” Is that true? Is there really no hope for us anymore?

  8. Frustrated Admin

    HAH! The owner and president of my company is an engineer! There is not one business-trained person here, running things. We have one major client, who is very powerful and likes to take work away from little firms like ours just because they can. Our marketing guy is also the director of almost every division, and spends maybe 5-10% of his time on marketing.

    We are doomed.

  9. Anonymous

    No one in our company has received a raise in over 3 years. We recently were given our annual 401(k) profit sharing which was 3% of our salary. Believe me that is appreciated but then you realize that they give you the profit sharing so they don’t have to pay taxes on it….but then send a letter announcing saying that “times are still shaky” so they are “hopeful” that salary increases may be possible sometime in 2011 or 2012. In the same letter they casually mentioned that sales were up 5% over the previous year. So sales were up, you were able to provide a 3% 401(k) contribution but we aren’t in a position to provide a raise for anyone?

    On top of that our health insurance renewal is up on April 1. Every year we have to change insurance companies because as a group we are “so unhealthy” (usually 1 person out of nearly 100 had a “significant” medical issue the previous year). They have a meeting scheduled March 29th to let us know our health insurance “options”…we have to select our plan at that meeting because our current policy will be expiring 3 days later…we don’t have any information on our new plans to make an informed decision or time to compare them.

  10. Law Manager

    I disagree with some of the advice from “askamanager.” I also realize that my stance will probably annoy many individuals. Here goes anyway.

    As far as the Manager pushing this issue with the owners, my analysis would reflect that the Manager is also an employee. “Manager” is a title and may be worth little in the face of employers who are carrying out supposed covert ops. The Manager is probably being reviewed as well, and is endowed with the same fears as any other employee. That s/he does not want to lose a job in the face of a recession that the government is just admitting exists. The Manager may be very unwilling to proceed, taking into consideration the repercussions.

    Frankly, I wonder if the Manager is going to be around for much longer. I note this because of the phrase “secret yearly reviews for the 85 employees.” Has the Manager broken protocol with informing the employee about this? If so, once the employer finds out, how will it be before the employers decides the Manager inappropriately?

    What the employee should do is go into a SELF-AUDIT mode by documenting and protecting. Get WRITTEN feedback from the Manager. Don’t speak to the Manager send an email to the Manger, inquiring about the project/work; were the objectives on target; what did the Manager want different, better or the same; was the goal reached. GET IT IN WRITING. Do you keep your own calendar of your work? Were projects completed? If not, why, what happened? Was it your fault? Did you miss the target? Did someone else? If you missed the target, how did you correct the problem? Remember words can be considered hearsay. I have seen the best of individuals backtrack because they thought their job was on the line. No one can backtrack from an email that reads “You did a great job.”

    I’ve advised individuals to create a professional email address, and forward emails that prove properly completed work. Print them for your records. Even when the email returns that improvements are needed, then make the improvements, obtain updated written feedback. If you are not instinctive about your work, then who is going to be?

    Check your comings and goings; are you on time, late, prepared to work? How can you prove it? As no one has any idea what is part of the employer’s performance appraisal, it means that your equation must factor more variables. Send yourself an email when arriving, when leaving for and returning from lunch, and day end, so if needed you are armed with facts. I can’t think of how many employees come in late and when you address such a thing they say things like “it’s raining.” I usually get in even earlier when it rains because I know there is a problem. Let me make this position clear, an occasional lateness happens. Consistent lateness is justification for termination. If you came in late did you make up the time? When I held non-exempt position, I would seek out my employer, explain my lateness and ask if the employer wanted to dock me or if I could possibly make up my time by taking a shorter lunch hour or staying later.

    Are you the type of employee who arrives at the exact minute, then proceed to go to the kitchen and prepare breakfast, chat with several employees, and then get to their desk a half hour later? I can’t think of how many employees have been fired as a result of such comportment and are genuinely surprised. There is a phrase that is used for that. It is called “theft of services.”

    Also, as this is the internet age, do you spend time on Facebook or MySpace, browsing the internet, shopping? How about personal telephone calls. That includes calling every one of your friends during office hours. Please don’t tell yourself “Well if Sally or Sam can do it, so can I.” Think about what it is like when an employer goes into court with detail statements of how many hours you spent on your social networking site or personal telephone calls. Tell yourself that you will handle social networking on social hours. (By the way I don’t have any of these accounts. They are much too litigious.)

    As far as unemployment, you’re off target. The law provides that EVERY CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES has the right to FILE for unemployment. It does not matter the reason why you are filing, you have the right to file. Unemployment will determine and either deny or make the award. I just came across a recent case where unemployment awarded an individual who abandoned their job. The employer had a written policy that read if an employee does not call in absent for three consecutive days, their job was considered abandoned. The former employee was in jail, and could not make a phone call. The former employee filed for unemployment and was awarded. (Yes, you read that right. The theory was that the former employee could not advise the employer because he was in jail.) The employer has the right to appeal. (Yes, the employer is appealing.) If the judge sides with the employer, the former employee can appeal, and vice versa. I have had employees resign who file for unemployment because the new job they went to did not work out, and were awarded against our account. As far as gross misconduct, once again, such an interpretation is in the hands of the unemployment office and the appeals judge. Let me make this clear, if a former employee is denied an award, s/he can appeal the judgment. As noted above, come with your documentation.

    If the employee lives in a state where employment “At Will” covenant exists, then the employer can discharge for any reason as long as the decision is not violate Title VII, is not discriminatory in nature, or violates Human Rights Law depending on what State the employee resides. In New York, we have both NYC Human Rights Laws and NYS Human Rights Laws. The employer can terminate “just because I felt like it.” Does this sound stupid, yes? Is it illegal, no? Does it make sense that any employer would want to do this; well, go back to the stupid and illegal question. As far as the weirdoes (which by the way you spelled wrong), it is not illegal to be a weirdo employer and it is not actionable either.

    However, noting this, reflect on the individuals that have been terminated for your own mental edification. Were they of a protected class? Were they all over a specific age? Were they disabled? Were they Latino, Asian or African American? Is there some type of common denominator? Make a notation in case you need to contact the EEOC.

    Even with all of this, a downward economic spiral protects no one. What I am not being called in to consult on are cases where individuals have lost their jobs, are advised that they are wonderful employees, the former employers are more than happy to give a letter of recommendation but are being fired as a result of financial problems. Never mind about the fact that the employer just terminated three people over the age of sixty.

    Here’s the issue, educate yourself. Protect yourself.

    1. Mary

      I “quit” and was awarded Unemployment Benefits in an “At Will” state.
      BECAUSE OF MY DOCUMENTATION.
      However the company does have a tendency to relieve higher paid employees during cut backs.

  11. Grant

    What would you do if your boss does not want to sign your Performance agreement and he’s also an government employee just like you and is going to affect affect your performance assess. I cant be access because I dont Performance Agreement between me and the boss.
    Pls advise !

  12. Steve

    I just read the entire post and comments. I figured I’d add my thoughts:

    I have been working at Kohl’s for eight years. Performance reviews occur each August. The last time I actually saw what was written on my performance review was about seven years ago. These reviews will be very important to me in the future. I love where I work very much and am one of the location’s best employees. I’ve been named Associate of the Month three times and have received a rating of “exceeds expectations” on three annual performance reviews. I can’t believe there are companies out there that don’t let employees see their reviews.

  13. creditcardgroceries

    There is a simple answer to this. “Greed”.
    The company I work for gives no reviews at all. Never. None.
    The company is a dual-proprietorship, so two men have complete ownership. The assumption that there is a “boss” that can sway the owners attitude is off the mark.
    Business owners do this because they simply do not want to give a raise, ever. When employees after ten years have to go and ask for a raise, imagine how ridiculous it is to have to “validate” reasons for it. Its sickening, underhanded, and perverse.
    But “at will” employment is just that. You have no choice, especially when these guys rely on a crummy economy to keep employees.

    Another funny thing Ive noticed, when employees get sick and tired of it, and find another job, the CEO/Owner only THEN throws more money at them and perhaps a promotion title.

    Ive sat on my bed with a gun to my head thinking there was no way out of this hell hole of a job. I cover five job descriptions and cover all of them to a highly successful degree.
    The CEO however, is so uninvolved, so incompetent and out of touch (during 6 vacations a year), that he is unaware of the current salary range for any of these positions.
    I am making myself as valuable as possible covering these jobs descriptions, and when that next good job comes along, I will tell him to kiss my a$$ and keep his blood money.

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