short answer Saturday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s short answer Saturday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Can coworker stop me from using a heat rub for a sports injury?

I seriously hurt my thigh muscles after a workout and was struggling to walk at times, so I was applying Deep Heat to the muscles to ease the pain. I also took it to work with me to continue the relief it gave.

I have been asked by a colleague to stop using it as it is bothering her chest. Now, I sit in my own office and she is in a communal area outside and sits around 30 feet away. Her sister is the boss, and she has told me that her sister (the boss) has asked me to stop using it. This woman smokes 60 cigarettes a day, has emphysema, and finds my pain relief offensive. Where do I stand with this?

Those heat rubs really do stink — often more than you might realize if your nose has adjusted to it from frequent use. And I say this as someone who came close to having an Icy Hot addiction at one point.

Anyway, if your boss tells you to stop using it, you need to stop using it. But your boss should tell you that directly, not through her sister.

2. Interviewer asked what benefits I’m looking for

I started reading your blog in the middle of my job hunt, and the advice offered by you and your readers has been very helpful so far. I was able to use some of your tips today in an interview with a small consulting firm; the interview went very well until the end, when I was questioned about my expectations concerning salary and benefits. Having read several of your posts about salary discussions, I think I handled that like a pro. However, the interviewer next asked what benefits I would expect. I was caught off guard and stammered something about expecting vacation time of some sort and the usual package (health, vision, 401k, etc.).

What sort of benefits are usually included in a negotiation? I’ve mainly worked for government agencies, so I was at a loss for what to include. Thankfully, I don’t think it marred my performance too badly, so there’s a chance that I get called back for a second interview or, even better, receive an offer. Do you have any advice on the subject in case it comes up?

That’s an odd question for him to have asked, and it’s one interviewers don’t ask very often, since typically their benefits are what they are — asking what you expect for benefits implies that they have flexibility on them. And I mean, you might be able to negotiate some more vacation time here or there, but in general, a benefits package isn’t very changeable. So I wouldn’t expect to run into this question very much — but if you hear it again, turn it back around and ask, “What kind of package do you offer?”

3. Negotiating a job offer when a workplace is unionized

I was recently offered a job and in the process of negotiating. However, the job that I would like to negotiate for is a unionized position at a university. I am unsure how to proceed in this situation.

The salary of the position was advertised (not a range, just a salary figure.) I would like it to be a bit higher, but do not know if I have a leg to stand on because it was advertised as such. If salary is non-negotiable, I would like to negotiate for more vacation time. However, I am simply unsure if it is even possible to negotiate when positions are overseen by a union. Can this be done? What would your recommendations be?

Ask! There’s no harm in asking, and if the union prevents it, they’ll tell you that.

4. Should I mention I’m leaving a job after two months?

Having been at a job for less than 2 months, I would not put it on my résumé because, as you have stated, I have not accomplished anything. However, I did apply for a job and have an interview. I assume they will bring up the question of what am I currently doing. Do I say I recently started a position but this position I am interviewing for is more in line with my goals? Or do I omit talking about this recent position all together since it is not on my resume and I could still talk about the part-time job I am currently at? My fear is that mentioning the recent position will make the interviewer think I am flippant about jobs, which my résumé proves I am not.

Don’t mention the job you’ve only been at for two months; instead just mention your part-time position. Whatever good mentioning the two-month job could possibly do (which is probably none) is outweighed by the questions it would raise.

5. Noting an out-of-business employee on a resume

How do I specify on my résumé that I am no longer at a retail position because the store closed? Can I say October 2010-July 2012 (store closed)?

Yes, that’s perfect.

6. Ridiculous performance evaluations

I know all companies do things differently, but I have to say that I’m a bit jealous of all the letter-writers that mention “stellar” performance reviews. At my company, managers intentionally low-ball an employee’s ratings. In fact, in digging out my notes from last year’s review my boss specifically told me I can *never* achieve anything higher than “Met Expectations” on specific categories, like Job Focus and Company Values, so I shouldn’t even try to self-rate higher than that. Also, there were several categories last year where I clearly was “Above Expectations” and rated myself so, but my boss’ rating was “Met Expectations.” When we met, the only explanation he could give me was that I couldn’t be rated “above” in every category, even if I performed that way. Therefore,his official ratings of my performance seems completely arbitrary.

Is this common? What’s the point of doing this? I realize if the reviews are tied directly to raises, and everyone has “stellar” reviews, that they can’t give everyone a raise or promotion. Even with my lackluster review last year, I received a significant (~12%) raise, so that can’t be it. I guess I can take solace in the fact that my comments/assessment clearly show I performed above average, but it’s really a bummer to be told officially you were just average.

Your manager sucks. Handling evaluations that way isn’t uncommon, but it’s ridiculous. Performance evaluations can be valuable when they’re done well, but unfortunately way too many companies horribly mishandle them, leading everyone to hate them for the most part — when in fact it’s possible to make them really useful.

7. When your relevant experience is several jobs back

What do we do if our most relevant experience for a posting is also several jobs back on our work history?

I was laid off from my last job just over two years ago. It was in a new-to-me field, and as I was only on staff for a little over a year, I have neither enough experience nor certifications to be competitive for another position in the same field. I have recently decided to expand my search to include applying for retail positions. I do have four years of prior retail experience — however, it’s twelve years old, and the none of the jobs I’ve had since are even remotely relevant. Is there any good way to handle this kind of situation? If so, what do you suggest?

It’s not ideal, but you could put the relevant experience at the top in a section called Relevant Experience and put everything else below that in an Other Experience section. Also, it’s going to be even more important than normal to write a really good cover letter to try to combat the fact that the experience isn’t very recent. Good luck.

{ 94 comments… read them below }

  1. B

    OP for 4 & 5 – Thank you! I assumed it would raise more questions than answers but as they say “you know what happens when you assume”.

  2. Maria

    #3, I work in HR at a Community College right now where we have a few unions we deal with. Starting salary, salary “steps”, AND vacation time are likely set out in the bargaining agreements with the union(s) and if so, they wouldn’t be negotiable. Like Alison said though, it won’t hurt you at all to ask.

  3. V

    I also work in a unionized position at a university. Generally these figures are non-negotiable – on the upside though, we get a step raise every anniversary and a cost of living raise every calendar year. Your rate of pay will go up quickly if it’s anything like mine. I’ve been at my position for 5 months and my bi-weekly pay has already increased by $84. The position was advertised at one salary, but by the time the position was offered a new fiscal year had started and significantly increased the pay. Then I got a cost of living raise this January, and I’ll be getting a step raise this August. It’s a pretty sweet deal as long as the salary is within the range of what you’re looking for.

  4. Nola

    When I was offered my first union position, I was able to negotiate the ‘step’ that I started at. I did quite a bit of digging on the public service website and found out that the area manager did have the ability to start a new hire on a higher level of the grid.

      1. Chinook

        I have done this too after working as a temp in an HR department and being offered a job in the same organization but different department. I knew how many steps there were for the position and was able to start in the middle.

    1. Natalie

      Yep, if the manager is willing and able to make the case, it’s absolutely possible to start at a higher pay grade. When my partner started at his unionized university job, he got one salary level above the posting.

  5. Blinx

    The benefits question is one I’m hoping to get after an interview. For those who have good health benefits through another source (like a spouse), it’s in their favor to let the interviewer know that you will not need major health benefits. This could even be used in salary negotiations. That’s not to say that you won’t need them at some later point, if a spouse loses their job. Also, if you’re more senior and have a lot of experience, you might be looking for a lot of vacation (3-4 weeks) instead of the standard 2. But all of this I think is better brought up at the offer stage, rather than at the close of an interview.

    There are also rather specific benefits that many people don’t need, depending on their situation — education reimbursement, child-care, elder-care, working from home, pre-tax accounts for transportation or parking. That’s why I like it when some employers have all of their benefits spelled out on their website — it’s less awkward than having to ask about these specifics — makes you appear less “needy.”

    1. class factotum

      it’s in their favor to let the interviewer know that you will not need major health benefits

      Perhaps, but it may not benefit you financially. My employer’s health insurance is horrible and my husband’s is very good, but for me to stay on his plan, we would have to pay an extra $100 a month over the spouse rate. (Which makes sense, because why should his employer subsidize my employer?)

      I asked my employer if they would give me the premium they pay if I take my husband’s plan instead and they said no. It is definitely to their benefit not to have people on their plan who never file a claim, but they are not willing to pay people to go away.

      1. Blinx

        Oooh – that reminds me. I applied to work at a major university, and if you don’t take their health benefits, you receive a $100 extra every month! Some companies DO pay people to go away.

        1. Anonymous

          I work at a small college and I got $100 a month extra when wasn’t on their health insurance. Then I turned 26 and got kicked off my parents. Sigh. The good old days.

  6. Cathy

    #7 — I just received a cover letter that explained a similar situation. The candidate wrote something like “It might be a little hard to find my experience with X on my resume. While I haven’t been working with it in my most recent position, I did develop a curriculum for this subject and teach it at Y University from 20xx to 20xx. I also used it in the position before that at major company Z.”

    These jobs were on page 2 of his resume, so he’s correct that I might easily have missed the relevant experience, but the cover letter was enough to direct me to it. Even though this key skill is stale (it’s a programming position, and if you haven’t used the language in 5 years, you’re definitely out of date), I still wanted to interview him. Unfortunately for me, this is a very hot job market, and he got another offer before I could.

    #6 — I sympathize with the frustration over your crazy performance evals. As a manager, I really, really hate these eval systems where HR says the ratings are objective because they have a list of criteria that describes a top performer, but only the top 3% of employees can get the top mark. The fact that so many HR people are unable to understand that this statement contradicts itself is what drives engineers crazy.

    It is painful to give a review where an employee is not getting a top rating despite having met all the published criteria for one. I’d rather have more fuzzy criteria where there’s always room for improvement than have SMART goals or benchmarks that were met but can’t be rewarded. In these systems where you’re actually being “graded on a curve” so to speak, the real way to improve your rating is to do the same thing you’d do in a classroom that had this grading practice. Look around your team and figure out who’s ranked above you, then find a way to exceed their performance before next year’s review.

    1. Henning Makholm

      Confused here — I’ve never worked at a place that used formalized performance evaluations. Perhaps they’re just not used around here or perhaps I’ve just randomly managed not to hit an employer that does them.

      But: What are these grades-on-a-curve important for? In earlier threads I’ve assumed that it must be implicit that the formal performance rankings are somehow automatically tied to getting raises or not, and that was why everybody implicitly agreed they were frustration-worthy.

      But here the OP says that his boss likes what he does enough to have secured a nice raise for him. What do the formal evaluation outcomes matter, then? I presume they go into a HR file somewhere, but who reads that file and why?

      It confuses me about equally that these values matter to the OP, and that they matter enough to HR to spend effort prescribing and enforcing a particular distribution for them.

      1. perrik

        It all depends on how the organization uses performance reviews in terms of raises/bonuses. The last big organization I worked for had tiers but only allowed a department to have a certain percentage of employees in the top tier; in order to comply, managers had to deflate the scores of some high performers just enough to fall below the top tier. Luckily the organization finally realized what a crappy system this was and changed it (after I left, unfortunately).

        1. bob

          You can thank Jack Welch at GE for that pile of @#%^#$ which has been completely bastardized at Microsoft by Lisa B and thoroughly deflated the workforce at M$ the last few years.

          She was head of personnel and took the “stack ranking” to a whole new level of horror for a lot of people in the company because no matter if everyone in a group did extremely well, someone was going get a 5 and be managed out or just fired.

      2. Cathy

        Well, I am of two minds about them. As an employee, I honestly prefer not to get annual performance evals. For me, it is uncomfortable to sit in a meeting that’s focused on my work performance. Just tell me “great job” or “hey, you could have done that better” once in a while and have an occasional one-on-one meeting to chat about projects and future direction, and that’s all I want. I’ve always been the sort to just quietly get things done, and I don’t really care if anyone praises me for it. I figure they’re paying me to give them my best effort, and that’s enough.

        However, I have been assured by many people (though now that I think about it, not from anyone in the IT / Software Eng world that I inhabit), that formal reviews are very important to employees and they really do want to have written goals against which to measure themselves and be measured. Also, it’s just a requirement of being a manager at most U.S. companies of any size, so I do them for my teams.

        The process at large-ish software companies usually goes like this:
        – employee fills out a self eval form that might or might not mirror the form the manager will fill out; sometimes other peers and direct reports do evals of the person also (360 degree feedback)
        – manager attends training by HR on how to do perf reviews and give feedback
        – manager stack ranks employees and figures out what rating each employee will get and runs this up some number of management levels for reconciliation with other depts’ rankings and gets final numbers back
        – manager fills out perf eval form after reviewing self eval of employee, making sure the overall number matches the stack ranking
        – manager gets budget for raises and HR’s recommended amount for each person based on stack ranking; manager uses her discretion to adjust these numbers while keeping the total budget balanced
        – manager meets with each employee and conducts performance review and goal setting meeting, sometimes raise is communicated at that meeting, sometimes that comes later

        Notice that overall eval results and raises are decided long before the evals themselves are actually written. By the time the meeting with the employee happens, the raise has already been determined and nothing the employee or manager says in that meeting will have any effect on the amount. I think a lot of employees are totally clueless about this part of the process.

        This has been my experience at several technology companies ranging in size from hundreds to tens of thousands of employees over the past 25 years. There are minor variations, but the basic process is very similar from one company to the next.

      3. Cathy

        Oh, and as to who reads them …

        I read last year’s eval because it gives me ideas about what to write about this year. I can see if the employee took my advice to improve on a skill or behavior and mention that if it’s appropriate.

        I presume HR might read them if an employee raised an issue about them, but I can’t imagine they have time to read them all at most companies.

        I’ve never seen reviews for an employee requesting a transfer into my group. When that happens, I just have an informal conversation with the current manager. Once an employee does transfer to me, I usually have had access to his past reviews, but my practice is to only read them after I’ve written the next review for that person.

        1. Henning Makholm

          I can easily imagine reasons for people to read whatever free-form prose there is room to write in the review.

          What I’m confused about is specifically the numeric (or otherwise discrete) ratings that managers apparently have to fit to a quota. Who uses those for what (if, as in the OP’s case, they’re clearly not needed to qualify for raises)? It cannot be that the number of (say) “5” ratings in a department determine how large a budget for raises the manager gets, if it’s HR who decides in advance how many 5s the manager must give in total.

          1. Cathy

            Ah, I see the confusion. Raises are tied to the overall rating; that’s the reason why there’s a quota on the ratings in the first place.

            Usually the suggested raise from HR will be something like:
            4% for “Exceeds Expectations” or “5”
            2% for “Meets” or “3”
            0% for “Needs Improvement” or “1”
            (depending on if the overall rating system uses words or numbers), and that amount will also fit in the budget they’ve given.

            The OP’s company may have gotten a very generous budget this year, or they may have a separate budget for getting people up to market level and she got a piece of that. Or her manager decided not to give anyone else a raise … no way to know.

          2. Maris

            They may also be used for ‘screening’ on opportunities within the company. Eg: some companies have give-back programs where their personnel can work a project for a charity group (usually overseas) for 3 months. Only the highest ranked employees are eligible, as this is viewed as a career development opportunity to help build their career.

            Likewise with international assignments, eligibility for awards etc.

      4. AdAgencyChick

        What drives me crazy is not so much managers who decide that the top rating is really only for that once-in-a-lifetime employee, but rather when a policy like this is inconsistently applied at a company. Then you have some managers who think that 5-of-5 is for people who are really good at what they do, and others who think that 5-of-5 is only for purple unicorns that poop sunshine and vomit rainbows — but the raise and bonus pool is based on the numerical evaluations compared to other employees on the whole, not just those under the same manager.

        I do think a lot of performance review categories are poorly written, such that it’s not always a manager being a hardass if s/he won’t give a top rating. I’m not afraid to give an “exceeds expectations” for something like a skill related to the job. But then there are categories that are more about character than skill, like “displays honesty and integrity in business decisions.” In that case…how can there be such a thing as exceeding expectations? I would expect someone to have integrity all the time!

        1. ThursdaysGeek

          And what annoyed me was when management said there was only so much avaliable for raises, and my boss believed them, but other bosses pushed back for higher raises anyway. It was nice having an honest boss, but that only works when he’s working for honest management. Otherwise, both he and I lose.

      5. Aimee

        In my organization, each department gets a certain amount of money for raises. The people who score higher on evaluations get a slightly higher percentage (last year, I got 1/2% higher than my coworkers. But due to the way the budget was allocated, I also got 1/2% higher than my husband, who works in a different department, even though he also got an exceeds).

        In addition, those who got exceeds got an extra bonus when bonus time came around. It almost doubled my bonus and is benefiting me right now, because my disability pay for maternity leave is based on my highest quarter’s earnings in the past 18ish months, so that bonus increased my weekly disability pay significantly. That was the only time I am aware of that they gave that extra bonus though (I got exceeds the year before too, and didn’t get an extra bonus).

        I’m currently on maternity leave, so I won’t get my annual review until I get back in a couple months (though I’m having lunch with my boss next week and hoping I can get her to at least tell me what my rating was). But I have a coworker who really took on a lot last year and helped our boss set up an entire new team (I joined the team just a few days before my leave started), and I think that even though I’m a hard worker and performed above the expectations my old boss and I set for last year, she performed even more above; generally only one of us can get exceeds, and she deserves it this year. In my experience, that’s how it works – exceeding isn’t only based on the goals you set at the beginning of the year, but on how your coworkers performed as well.

        1. Henning Makholm

          What confuses me is that the OP here got a significant raise despite also getting lackluster numerical ratings, so raises cannot be what his organization is using those ratings for.

    2. EngineerGirl

      I’d rather have more fuzzy criteria where there’s always room for improvement than have SMART goals or benchmarks that were met but can’t be rewarded.

      This statement makes me angry, especially coming from an HR person. Its basically saying, “we don’t want to be accountable for how we rate people”.

      Look, there is always room for improvement, no matter what. Establish the basics for what is expected. Then if the employee meets that then they meet expectations. But that doesn’t determine the ranking of the employee within the group. That is a relative performance (not the same as grading on a curve). So if you are in a group of 10 high achievers then it is is possible to come out #10 even if you give great performance. That is the ranking in the group, and gets rewarded appropriately.

      Will this cause high acheiver #10 to leave? Maybe, maybe not. The person might want to stay because working with brilliant people is wonderful, there is so much to learn, and acheiving great things is wonderful. That is a non-monetary part of the compensation package. The company also acheives great things, allowing them to pay their people better. So getting a #10 may not be a big deal, because they may be compensated at the appropriate salary level.

      But this Bell Curve grading system has to go. Anyone with even a minimum understanding of statistics knows that it isn’t relevant with a sample size of under 30. Any time I see it used I know that the HR department is incompetent and can’t understand analysis. Which means that they probably mis-analyze other things.

      1. EngineerGirl

        I realize that people might not understand relative ranking Vs performance curves.

        In performance curves HR determins that x percent exceeds expectations, y percent meets expectations, and z percent are below expectations. This means that someone will be ranked as below expectations, even if they met all their goals last year (that is, they met their expectations). This means that HR is basically lying to the employee, telling them that they didn’t do a good job even though they did.

        I ranking systems you can have any amount of people meet or exceed expectations. So everyone can perform at or even above goals. Then you line of the names from your best performer to your worst. So someone that meets expectations could come out on the bottom because everyone else did better. This is an honest assessment of where the employee stands in the company. No need to lie.

        1. Cathy

          “HR is basically lying to the employee, telling them that they didn’t do a good job even though they did.”

          No, actually it’s worse, because HR is making first level managers lie to the employees on their behalf. I’ve never worked anywhere where these tiers were explained to the employees. More experienced people know, but they’ve never heard it officially unless they were managers attending the HR training sessions.

      2. Cathy

        Just to clarify, I am not an HR person, I manage software engineers. I’m just telling you what frustrates me about the whole performance review process from the management side.

        1. EngineerGirl

          OK. Sorry. You are at the recieving end of the idiocy. Perhaps you can push back against your HR department and get them to implement a review system that is honest. Because HR is basically asking you to lie to your employees and that breaks the trust needed for high performing teams.

          1. Cathy

            I’m currently in a very small company where this is not an issue, but I’ve had this conversation with numerous HR people over the years. I assure you, the majority were just not able to comprehend the issue. There are only so many times you can bang your head against the wall before you get a headache.

      3. Josh S

        YES! Thank you!

        There needs to be two parts to your review: An evaluation of whether or not you met/exceeded what was expected of you (an objective, absolute, individual evaluation), and an evaluation of the value you bring to the company relative to everyone else (a probably-more-subjective, relative, department- or company-wide evaluation).

        Too often, these are rolled into one evaluation, where “Exceeds Expectations” can mean either/both “You did better than your stated goals at the beginning of this period” and/or “You are the best person on the team relative to everyone else.” Managers & HR teams really ought not mix the two, unless everyone has goals that are aligned so perfectly to those of the department/company that they are synonymous (which is impossible).

        1. Josh S

          To be clear, that means you end up with two measures on your evaluation:
          -Exceeds Expectations/Meets Expectations/Needs Improvement/Fire ’em Now (this provides feedback on how your work performance is)

          and

          -Top 20% / Middle 60% / Bottom 20% (this determines your merit raise potential)

          Obviously, it’s going to be really hard to be in the “Exceeds Expectations” and also in the bottom 20% group. But it’s entirely possible that you could “Exceed expectations” and be in the Middle 60%.

  7. Kimberly

    For #1 I had a similar problem with a student who’s asthma was triggered by the smell of the rubs. Look into those hot packs that you break the seal and stick onto the spot. They stay warm for hours and really helped my shoulder and back.

    1. Construction HR

      ^^Yep, this. No smell, no mess, lotsa warmth.

      #2 Makes me wonder if the employer was indirectly asking about marital/childbearing status. I thought this was one of those questions for employers to avoid asking so they could avoid the appearance of discrimination.

    2. JT

      Yes, though chemical warmers are good. Or consider a heat pack that is re-usable after heating in a microwave.

      1. Elizabeth

        You can make your own re-usable heat pack! Just sew cotton fabric (flannel, calico, etc.) into a rectangular pouch, fill it with uncooked rice, and sew it shut. Or, for an even quicker version, fill a (clean) tube sock with rice and tie it shut.

        1. Elizabeth

          Oh, and then when you want to use it, microwave it for a minute at a time, checking on it each time, until it’s hot. You can also use wheat grains, buckwheat, or feed corn as the filler. If you want a nice smell (not for the OP probably, but at home) you can add dried lavender or other herbs, the contents of a few tea bags (like chai), or a few drops of essential oils.

    3. perrik

      +1

      I did something unpleasant to my neck last year and discovered that those heat packs were more effective than the rubs for easing the pain. Also, there are rubs with “vanishing” odor that only smell strong upon initial application.

      I am curious, though. “Her sister is the boss, and she has told me that her sister (the boss) has asked me to stop using it.” Did the OP for #1 ask the boss directly after the sister made this comment? Is it possible that the co-worker said that because it would sound authoritative and not because Boss Sister agreed that the OP should stop using the pain rub?

      Also, the co-worker’s sister is also her boss? I dearly hope this is a family-run business…

    4. Elise

      Sew yourself a little cloth pillow full of rice. Those can be microwaved for a minute or two and provide long lasting heat. When it cools, just reheat again!

      You can make them different shapes too. Long, thin pillows are good for wrapping around the neck.

    5. Katniss

      Yup, this is a great idea! I have scent allergies and the smell of those rubs will literally make me throw up, but the reusable packs are a perfect replacement.

    6. Cam

      Since the OP has their own office (with an outlet I assume), they could also bring in a heating pad. No goop, smell, or waste.

    7. COT

      Arnica gel might also be an option–it’s a natural remedy and doesn’t have all those synthetic smells in it. Some people see results for achy muscles, some don’t. You can find it at natural-foods and nutrition stores if your local drug store doesn’t carry it.

  8. Blinx

    Regarding performance evaluations, it took me a LONG time to understand this. I still remember how upset I was after my first one at my last company. Got glowing comments on my review, nice raise, and a “meets expectations” rating. Ugh! But as someone here once explained, that if a company hires outstanding people, then they are expected to do outstanding work — thus, “meeting” expectations. I recognized that I did work with a whole slew of stellar people, and could see how it could be difficult to give everyone highest marks. I don’t quite agree with the practice (grading on a curve), but I have a better understanding of it now. I hope your boss had the decency to put in writing what he though of your performance. And a 12% raise, in ANY economy — wow! Congratulations!

    1. scw

      I worked in a place like this–where above and beyond was what was expected so there was no way to get an exceeds. It drove me crazy because they didn’t actually penalize folks who didn’t go above and beyond, just no recognition for achievements. Though, I’m glad I worked there, because I was able to parlay that experience into a much better job now!

    2. Rana

      I think grading on a curve (where you decide ahead of time that X% of people will be “Above” Y% will be “Met” and Z% will be “Below”) is terrible, but I don’t see the problem with setting the bar for “Met” high, unless it’s so high that less than half of your staff can’t meet it.

      (In my experience, a random group of people will end up distributed on a bell curve; ideally the center of that matches one’s “Met” standard. However, if you’re selecting out the lower end of that curve during your hiring practices, it may well be that most people are going to end up in “Met” while the “Above” will be what it would have been in any case.)

      Anyway… what I thought when I read the OP’s complaint, was that perhaps their boss doesn’t agree with their self-assessment of being “Above” but is either (a) too timid to come right out and say so, or (b) has a gut sense of why, but hasn’t ever really learned to turn that gut feeling into words that another person can understand.

      (I see this in new teachers sometimes. When you start out, ideally you develop your standards based on a specific rubric that teaches you what good, mediocre, and superior work looks like. But some people learn it by doing and never really think about it; it’s all “this seems like a B” or “this feels like a C.” Which, okay, but if you need to explain to a student why what they thought was A work is in fact B work, it’s harder than if you laid down your rules on paper at some point, even if just for yourself. And if you move to another context where the average student does better or worse than the average student at the last place, then you have to decide whether to judge the new set according to your old sense of “average” “good” etc. or to adapt your criteria. I would imagine management is similar, only there’s no certification process.)

    3. OP 6

      Yes, I feel this explanation is probably the case. They expect me to perform at a high level, so if I do, then I meet expectations.

      I’m beginning to see that the problem was that my boss did not adhere to this mindset when putting forth my specific goals. For example, on a deliverable deadline,the goal states Nov 1, which was the drop-dead date for the deliverable. If I’m really supposed to be evaluated at this high-performance level, my boss should have thought “It would really be OUTSTANDING to have the deliverable by Sept 1.” And then I’d be measured against the Sept 1 date instead of Nov 1.

      That way, it would make a lot more sense getting a “met expectations” if I hit a Sept 1 deadline when Sept 1 is the high performance expectation. It makes no sense to say that completing a project Sept 1 when the goal was Nov 1 is a “met expectations”. My only thought is maybe my boss wanted to protect me and give me that 2 month buffer?

      1. Aimee

        I’ve worked for my current boss in several roles off and on over the past 4 or so years, and one thing she did that I really liked was outline what meets and exceeds was for each of my goals when we set them. That’s not always possible (for example, the company gives us revenue goals for the products we manage, and they just give us the bottom line on that. Realistically, though, the revenue is influenced by so many different things, and I only own one of those things, that I could be on a product that misses the goal but still get an exceeds review based on my particular contribution), but when it is possible, that’s how I like to do it when I have to write my own goals now (whether I write them or my manager writes them just depends on their preference. Usually it’s a collaboration to some degree).

      2. EngineerGirl

        A goal is a goal, and you met it or exceeded it. If your boss has secret goals then they are a horrid boss. And telling you after the fact that you are only ranked at “meets” Vs “exceeds” when you clearly exceeded the stated goal is dishonest. If my boss did that (and he wouldn’t) then I would definately question the thought process behind it.
        Good goal setting is about honest dialogue and clear communication.

        1. Rana

          +1 Yes. If you don’t give your people a clear sense of what is expected, nor a clear sense of where they did well or didn’t do well, it’s going to be frustrating all around, come evaluation time.

  9. Anonymous

    I am in a union at a university. The pay grades are published online in the union contract. I was initially offered the first ‘step’ in my pay grade, but I requested to be placed at the third step and they agreed. So, it is possible to negotiate a union salary.

    1. human

      Yeah. The OP should look up the contract, often times they are publicly available, and check for him/herself, rather than just asking the hiring people and taking their word, because they might lie and say “sorry we can’t do anything, it’s the union’s fault”.

  10. Esra

    Icy Hot makes these gel patches that have no odour and come in a variety of size, you could put them on under your clothes and no one will be the wiser.

  11. Mike C.

    I hope this isn’t a pain, but I have two completely different points and I’m going to make two different posts so the discussions of each don’t crisscross. Anyway.

    With regards to #1, how far does this go? Is it just the issue that the particular treatment is highly distracting, or does a manager have the ability to dictate which medical treatments you can and cannot use regardless of the business effects (or lack thereof)? I know this is just a hypothetical, but it’s Saturday and I’m curious. :p

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Not a pain!

      So, legally speaking, your employer only has to give you medical accommodation if it’s for a condition covered under the ADA, which means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (and then only if the accommodation is deemed reasonable and doesn’t provide “undue hardship” for the employer). The employer also doesn’t have to give you the specific accommodation you ask for and can decide on others instead. So in the OP’s case, first, the condition almost certainly isn’t covered under the ADA, but if it were, the employer would be within their rights to say, “Hey, that Deep Heat is making it hard for others to breathe, so please use a treatment that doesn’t have that result.” Hypothetically, if that were the only possible treatment (which it’s presumably not, based on other suggestions here), the employer could then say, “Sorry, but it’s not reasonable accommodation if it impacts other employees’ in the way this does” … although, then, depending on the nature of his job, the accommodation might be to let him work in a more isolated office or from home for the duration of the treatment. (But again, all moot in this situation because the ADA isn’t in play here.)

      So that’s the legal side of it. On the “what’s smart” side of it, yeah, generally you don’t want to micromanage employees’ health treatments. Although if it really is impacting other employees (beyond just annoying them), it’s reasonable to talk about that.

      1. Kathryn T.

        I volunteer for an organization with a fragrance-free policy, which made an exception for an employee’s aromatherapy treatment for his bipolar disorder a few years ago. Which STANK, from yards away. This blew my mind: 1), surely that’s not required under the ADA, seeing as there’s no peer-reviewed evidence supporting aromatherapy for BPD. 2), if that smell DOES alter his mental state, what’s it doing to the rest of us?

  12. Mike C.

    With regards to #6, this is way more common than many think. I know of a few large software development firms (very large) will put an artificially low limit the number of “Meets expectations” and above. Given that managers move around all the time, they end up saving the good reviews for the employees they know well and the folks they don’t are screwed.

  13. Girasol

    #6 Performance evaluations and budgets are tied. I had a manager once who said my performance over the year had been excellent and he would have ranked me in the 4-5 range if he had the choice. But I had been recently promoted from a menial entry level job with low pay and a 4 in my new job deserved a much higher wage. Just writing “4” on my evaluation required, by company policy, that he give me a large percentage raise immediately and again in six months. And there was the rub: he had no budget for it. So he gave me all 1s (probation, needs immediate improvement) which kept my wage within his budget. Nothing personal, he hastened to explain, and it’s just paperwork anyway. He hoped I’d understand that he was really very pleased with my performance and he’d make it up to me with the net budget cycle. Ever since I have clearly understood the tie between performance ranking and budget!

    1. Rana

      Weird. If 4 was the cut-off and he wanted to keep you below it, why not give you all 3s? Or was the all 1s a way of signalling “ignore the numbers, read the qualitative comments”?

      1. Girasol

        Any rating over “probation” required a raise and he had zero budget. I was horrified about probation going on my permanent record (being young enough then to care about my permanent record). But a manager who understood what happened and had seen the evaluation snapped me up, for which I’ll be forever grateful. In the end it was better to get 1s and have my eval look clearly suspicious than to get 3s, as the OP did, and have a low-balled but believable evaluation. I do think it’s a pity that evaluations and raises are tied, so that if the whole team turns in truly amazing performances across the board, most of them must be told that their work is just ho-hum, just to keep a bell curve and reduce the cost of raises. That’s sad, as the OP indicated.

      2. ChristineH

        Agreed Rana….giving you all 1’s seems pretty extreme. I know he was up front about the situation (which I applaud him for), but in HR’s eyes, you were on thin ice.

  14. Tim C.

    #6 – Hypothetically if the OP were to be upset and look for another job or a transfer and these mediocre performance reviews were to limit the chances, could this be grounds for libel? This manager admits the review is not accurate. I would also press the question of what is necessary to get a better score.

  15. Josh S

    #6: Alison, I have a bit of a tangential question for you. If you’re a manager at a workplace that specifies certain percentages at different performance ranges, would it ever be appropriate to have “different” ratings that you share with your employees than the ones you hand over to your boss/HR?

    For example, say you have a team of 10 people. You’ve been told that you can only give 10% of people the top rating (Superb Performance), 30% the next-to-top rating (Exceeds Expectations), and 60% have to go below that (Meets Expectations, Needs Improvement, and Fire ’em Now). But you have 2 really stellar performers who are tops in the whole company, another 3 who are clearly above average, and the other 5 are solidly in “Meets Expectations”.

    If you go to HR or make your case that you have 2 stellar performers, etc etc and you are told that you must abide by the percentages, that means that one of your top 2 is going to end up in the 2nd tier when she should be in the top tier, and one of your 2nd tier is going to end up in the middle tier.

    In such a situation, would it be good/reasonable/help with morale/etc to tell the two people (one top tier and one 2nd tier) who are getting the ‘downgrade’ that they really do deserve to be in the higher grade, but the policy doesn’t allow for it? Or to prepare a “fair” evaluation for them that shows them “this is where you are and how I evaluate you. Unfortunately, company policy dictates that I can’t give you this rating because of the percentages, etc, so I have to submit a lower evaluation to them.”

    Which do you think is more ‘fair’ or better for morale, etc?

    Obviously, this is the problem with unbending policy set by folks who don’t know the reality of it. But balanced with the notion, “we expect all our people to be superb, so it takes something really spectacular to stand out”, I can see the tension. How would you deal with such a situation?

    (Not based on real life experience, just hypothetical…)

    1. JM

      I’d be interested in the answer to this too! It’s hard to explain to a top performer that although he/she is doing an amazing job, HR won’t let me give a certain rating or percent increase. I don’t want to just place the blame on HR and leave it at that. It’s especially tough when we’re told we can’t even give anyone the highest rating (5 out of 5). Basically the idea is that if you got a 5 you wouldn’t have anything else to improve and you’re basically the CEO of the company.

      1. EngineerGirl

        That’s a lie they like to tell. Each person gets ranked within their job category. So a 5 means that they ate performing at the top of their category (chocolate teapot assembler). Not CEO.

        There can also be areas of improvement even for a 5. It just means that the person is doing a great job. But if I gave a 5 I would be looking to promote that person soon. So maybe that is HRs strange logic.

        1. Anon1

          For our place, the ranking is made relative to your position (grade). So a 5 for the reception is quite different than from the CEO. Also, they do separate out the performance appraisals from the raises. While your performance matters, your salary versus market, where you are in terms of your job grade, etc… all come into play and they do allow an extraordinary (out of budget raise) if you and your manager can justify it (eg: if you are getting $80K but market is $100K, you should be able to get more than just a 3% raise). The only time your performance trumps everything is if you are getting the bottom ranking – which means no raise (and you should be on a PIP likely on your way out).

      2. JT

        But if HR has rules that are preventing you doing what you want, then tell him and leave it at that. That’s the truth. I don’t see the purpose of spending energy/thought on another explanation.

    2. Rana

      Personally, if I were told that Jane and I were both qualified for the top tier, but only Jane gets that ranking while I have to settle for second tier, I’d find that more upsetting than just being told I was second tier. I’d end up wondering why you didn’t seem to like me as well as Jane, whether there was something different I could have done to be the one chosen, whether it was worth making that extra effort if I was only going to end up in the second tier anyway, and so on.

      I’d rather hear something along the lines of “there was only one top spot available, and we decided that Jane did the best job” instead of “you and Jane were both equally amazing, but we only had one top spot and Jane gets it.”

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        That last part of Rana’s answer is what I was going to say. It’s rare that people really are exactly equal — generally you’re going to have a reason for picking one over the other, and you’d simply explain to the other person that the system only allows one top spot and that went to Jane because X.

  16. EngineerGirl

    #6 – You have a bad manager, but here are better ways to go about it.

    First, establish goals for the year for what “Meets expectations” look like. Write these down so you have a record. These goals should be quantitative (SMART goals). For example, “Deliver software product F by June 1. Defect rate shall be less than x%”. Or “Capture 2 new level 5 clients by December 20”.

    When evaluation time comes, quantitatively list your acheivements. It is easy to see if you met or exceeded your expectations.

    Now in a great workplace you might want to set up quarterly reviews with your manager to see how you were doing at meeting your goals.

    But if your manager won’t let you set specific goals? Time to get that resume out there. And in your cover letter mention your pay increases, which are quite large. Smart employers know that valuable employees are rewarded with money, irrespective of what the performance evaluation says. It is also a good sign if you’ve been rewarded with increasing responsibility. Because bad employees will have their assignments cut back to minimize damage to the company. Cut backs are the first phase of the “we’re getting rid of you” process.

    1. OP 6

      EngineerGirl, I always value your comments on posts and appreciate the above commentary re: fuzzy criteria.

      My goals for last year’s evaluation WERE defined, SMART goals. As an example, the goals set at he beginning of the year said final deliverable with by June 1, but in my year-end comments I noted that I had delivered the project on March 1, and then checked the “above expectations” for my self-rating. Then my manager, having seen my comments, checked the “met expectations” box. Or goal said have 50% of staff trained by Nov 1 and I had 100% at the mid-year review (June). Although boss verbally agreed I had exceeded expectations and it could clearly be seen in my comments on the form, I still received a “met expectations”.

      I was completely baffled when we met to discuss my review. Someone else said I should have spoken up about my concerns, and I did. That’s when he told me in so many word that I couldn’t be “exceeds” in every category.

      Now that I think about it, it’s possible he just set the bar ridiculously low and in reality expected me to perform the way I did. And I got my raise…but my review stands as a “meh” and potential future internal bosses won’t see my raise % and if they’re not reading through my review will only see that I “met expectations” when I really exceeded them.

      Luckily I have a new boss now, but I was curious if low-balling not for raise purposes was common.

  17. aname

    OP #1: The persons own habits do not impact on smelling other stuff – at least not always. Personally those sports rubs leave a trail through the office that, for me, the smell of cigarettes doesn’t. It will stay around for longer too.

    1. BeenThere

      Oh it’s interesting that you mention cigarettes because I am extremely sensitive to the smell, it triggers sneezing, headaches and nausea. So I’m wondering could an employer prevent an employee from smoking because of the scent?

      1. aname

        Its possible to ask that employees try to smell of smoke for the benefit of other employees. I live in the UK and as yet I don’t think anyone over here is prepared to try not hiring people because of it.

        A good hint, if you want to try to get management to institute a thing like this, is that one friend of mine has a ‘smoking jumper’ which she wears when smoking and takes off before reentering the workplace so that hopefully most of the smell stays with the jumper and not on her.

  18. Editor

    The last place I worked had a 1-5 ranking system, and managers were cautioned not to give their employees Lake Wobegon ratings (“all the children are above average”). There was also a goal-setting discussion at the end of the evaluation. I talked to someone recently where the ranking is a three-point system: below expectations, meets expectations, exceeds expectations. That surprised me — what if a person is better than average but not outstanding?

    So, question one: Are managers more likely to have a majority of average employees with a three-point review, a five-point review, or something larger, say seven or 10 points? Is there more grading creep when there is a bigger point spread?

    Question two: Are performance reviews really effective when there’s no financial incentive? My former company was adamant that they mattered, but after several years without raises, it seemed like people cared less about their reviews and their work showed it.

    Question three: What is the best way to handle goal-setting when a company is down-sizing and financially troubled? (Yes, get the resume out there, but in the absence of job interviews, an employee has to deal with the existing system.) I ended up writing stuff in my self-evaluation like “Goal was to do X with new software, which was not possible because new software was not made available and acquisition date has been pushed forward again.” So, my evaluation wasn’t great because there were a bunch of goals I hadn’t met, but the reason for not meeting them was out of my hands.

    If there’s a fancy performance evaluation system, I prefer a 360 system with good controls for anonymity. I think a 360 system makes lower-ranking employees feel the company is more serious about improving performance, although employees are pretty quick at figuring out if an appraisal system is handled professionally or ignored.

  19. Laura

    #6 – First of all, please tell me what company is giving out 12% raises for “lackluster” performance evaluations, because I would like to submit my resume there. Last year I got an outstanding review, which netted me a 5% raise.

    My company does something I’ve never heard of before, called “calibration sessions.” So, you, as the employee, do your self-evaluation, your manager does your review and assigns you a rating. Then, your manager, along with all the other managers/directors in your functional area all get together for a “calibration session” to talk about everyone’s rankings! It has such a horrifying, high-school vibe about it. My manager assures me that it really isn’t that way (not that I could do anything about it anyway) but I find that hard to believe. I’ve heard that they really only focus on the very low and very high rankings. But I’ve been told this helps prevent a manager from giving all their people extremely high ratings (if they’re too wimpy to be honest) or extremely low ratings (if they’re just hard-asses.) Does anyone else’s company do that?

    I got a review a few years ago from a different manager that was full of lies. This guy and I did not get along at all, and we butted heads from the start. I raised hell about it. I went to HR, who did nothing. This is when I found out that the HR rep for my area was quite supportive if you’re a manager that needs help with something, but not helpful at all if you’re an employee who has a disagreement with management. I went to the VP of my area, who pretty much shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, he’s the manager, so it must be true.” It was so unbelievably infuriating. During the review he said that people complained about me because I was rude and ridiculed them for asking questions. When I asked for examples of this behavior he refused to provide any, saying that I’d be able to figure out who complained and those people had come to him in confidence. This went on for awhile, and then he criticized me for being defensive. I explained that’s what happens when you attack someone — they defend themselves. He denied that he was attacking me, at which point I offered to go find a dictionary and look up the word “attack” for him, since he clearly had no idea what it meant. He told me he didn’t like my attitude, I told him I didn’t like his, then said I refused to sit there and listen to any further baseless character assassination. I was about 8 months pregnant, so I was already emotional anyway. But when I complained about this to HR, and asked why it was OK for my manager to fill my review with all these terrible things, and not provide any examples, they blew me off. And when I asked why, if I was such a horrible employee, he couldn’t be bothered to have even a 5 minute conversation with me about it, and if that was really the way the company wanted to treat its employees, they blew me off again.

    I’m still at the same company, working for someone else, and the person who did not help me at all got fired while I was on maternity leave, but I don’t know why. The HR group now is pretty good, but people still don’t trust them.

    1. Cathy

      Yes, calibration of ratings is common. Three of my employers have done this. It’s done before reviews are written but after ratings are decided, not always in a group meeting. When it has been a meeting, we’ve never talked over all rankings. It’s always just the very top and very bottom groups that need adjusting.

  20. Mary

    re: #3
    Universities tend to offer several more weeks of vacation a year than private sector employers do, and that’s whether you are unionized or not. So you may not actually need to negotiate that part of your package. And it’s possible that the more seniority you have in the union, the more vacation you get (i.e. after your first 20 years of service you get 2 more days a year)- that likely can’t be negotiated.

  21. Lisa

    #3 – If you don’t ask now, you will never get another merit based raise again. Vacation will be locked down for years. Merit based raises don’t exist at big universities with unions, you get a cost of living increase IF you are lucky and even then you may end up with that being frozen for a few years. Vacation is usually pretty good at universities, but make sure you have it in writing and ask for more money on the assumption that merit based raises won’t happen. Don’t tell them that, unless it is a documented fact that employee raises always go through union negotiation as a group versus anything individual per employee. Its a good question to ask, do they offer merit based raises if you exceed expectations but do not move up to a position that becomes a diff salary grade.

  22. Joey

    There’s are some misconceptions about annual performance grading that I can help clear up.

    1. Frequently the “curve” is simply a result of budgetary constraints.
    2. Frequently the “curve” is the result of too many managers having a poor understanding of the evaluation philosophy.
    3. Frequently the “curve” is the most efficient way to ensure evaluations are completed timely.

    To be clear I’m not defending the curve I’m just pointing out like all other methods there are both positive and negative aspects of it.

    And for all of those that tell your employees its HR’s fault their real performance is actually better than the performance rating you’re doing a disservice to your company. I don’t care if you don’t agree with it you have to own it. And to be clear its rarely HR’s fault alone. It’s usually HR, your fiscal team and the top layer of executives.

    1. Henning Makholm

      Your (1) cannot possibly be the case for the OP, who did get a raise.

      And would you mind explaining how it can possibly be “doing a disservice to [the] company” to lie to a good performer and falsely tell them that they are not one? Even if your higher-ups have declared that you’re not allowed to tell more than two of your good performers the truth, it is complying with such lunacy that does a disservice to the company. Disservice or not is defined by what is good for the company, not what the higher-ups in a moment of folly have decided you ought to do. And what is good for the company is to NOT demoralize your high performers by telling them that their high performance isn’t being noticed and valued.

  23. Jackie

    I’m the OP for #7 — Allison, thank you SO much; what a great idea! I have to say, I’ve also greatly appreciated the insight you’ve offered lately on cover letters. I loathe writing them, and the two I’m working at now feel like psychic childbirth (gah…no epidurals here….); but at least now I understand the point of letters and what exactly I’m supposed to be trying to achieve in writing them. That does ease the pain a little!

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