Confessions of a Millennial CPA: Your performance review is irrelevant

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Your performance review is irrelevant to your advancement in accounting. I’m not just speaking as a reviewee, but also as a performance manager.

Performance reviews are a sensitive subject. Some people take them very seriously, while others give them no thought whatsoever. It’s not only difficult to provide constructive feedback, it’s also difficult to receive it. Some managers think they’re providing feedback constantly, while their reviewees claim they never received any. You should consider the performance review process as an opportunity -- the opportunity to learn about and improve yourself.

What gives me hope, and perhaps my fellow Millennials, is that I’m not alone in thinking that this process could be (cough) refined. A 2015 survey by TriNet considered how Millennials feel about their performance reviews and feedback. Nearly 62 percent felt “blindsided” by their evaluation, 74 percent were “in the dark” about how people felt about them, and 59 percent felt their manager wasn’t prepared. The reactions were even worse. After a review, nearly 35 percent complained to their coworkers, 28 percent started a job search, and 15 percent cried. That means that, statistically, in your department of 10 people, one or two of you will cry after your review.

What struck me about this study was that it noted that 32 percent want the opportunity to do a self-review or at least share their own thoughts on their performance. What many of the CPA firms I’ve experienced do well is they require employees to do a self-review as part of the evaluation process. And while the Millennial might feel better about being able to share their own thoughts, the relative influence that opinion has on the outcome is a different matter.

While I believe performance reviews are irrelevant to your advancement, there’s still an opportunity to develop yourself. For better or for worse, your performance manager has committed to having a conversation with you (hopefully). There’s still a great deal of feedback you can receive about how you’re viewed in the workplace by management, your peers, and the junior members of your team. You might not agree with the feedback, but it’s still worth hearing. How they frame it, and how they structure the conversation, will demonstrate to you the opportunity available within the organization. And if you decide you don’t agree with the information or that the opportunity, if any, isn’t worth your time, then take the feedback, consider how you arrived at your situation, and thank them for their consideration. Focus on your personal development and the information they can provide that will help you achieve your goals.

Now let’s consider the case of Bob (not his real name). Bob worked for me for a short time and he was unusual because being a CPA was a career change for him. This meant he was slightly more mature than most of our staff and some of our managers. Another one of his challenges was that our firm didn’t have a proper training program. This meant it fell to the individual supervisors and managers to teach as much or as little as they wanted. And Bob needed a lot of training. His initial work was somewhat less than stellar, and after one project most of our people simply decided they didn’t want to work with him anymore.

But that’s not my style. One day I asked Bob how he would like to be managed. Did he prefer a hands-off approach, a micromanager, or something in between? He opted for the micromanagement. He knew his work wasn’t good and that he needed all of the help he could get. To make a long story short, under my active supervision, his work improved dramatically. In my humble opinion, he went from being an F student to perhaps a C. And we fired him anyway. If we gave him a few more months he might have earned a B. In a few years, I’ll still wonder what might have been.

“But wait, David! You just said Bob improved dramatically!” He did, in my opinion. But because everyone else had already decided they weren’t working with him anymore, they didn’t see it. I worked with Bob on his self-review and even gave him feedback on it before he submitted it. We, the management team, had roundtable reviews of the staff. At the beginning of the conversation, one of our tax partners asked if anyone wanted to keep Bob. The chorus was almost universally against him with a lone voice of dissent. “But wait,” I said. “Don’t you want to consider his performance and read his self-review?” At this point, a senior-level individual jumped in and stated that if we intended to terminate him then we shouldn’t even review him. She said this was better for liability reasons. If there’s nothing in the file, then it can’t be used against us in a legal proceeding. Then I asked them to consider his personal situation, which I will discuss later.

Now let’s consider Caitlyn, Chloe, and Courtney. These three people all left their self-reviews blank. This upset many people in the room and they were quite vocal about it, but I stayed silent. I was still upset about Bob; our department head had left the room to immediately terminate him. The general opinion was that if these three didn’t take the process seriously, then they shouldn’t be rewarded. To add insult to injury, Courtney and Chloe had informed one of the partners that if they weren’t promoted, then they would quit. It was noted that between this and the blank reviews, they had colluded to manipulate the performance process. And yet they were promoted to manager, although Chloe’s promotion was deferred pending her passing of the CPA exam. Caitlyn was the last person on a long day of heated discussions and, by this time, our department head had returned, his task completed. Caitlyn was well-liked. Discontent was expressed at her blank review, but that didn’t matter. At this point, I did share some concerns about her work, but I was immediately silenced. She was promoted too.

But what about Bob? Shortly before joining our firm, Bob and his wife had traveled to China to adopt a baby girl. An admirable, and very personal, decision. On the return trip, his wife’s nose started to bleed and wouldn’t stop. Shortly thereafter, they discovered she had cancer. I said to the management team that if we stood by Bob during this difficult time we would have an employee for life. Not many organizations have the opportunity to demonstrate such loyalty. Half of the room laughed at me. It was perhaps the second-most demoralizing experience of my management career. Five months later, Bob’s wife passed away and he was left alone to raise his baby girl. Is it possible that his personal situation impacted his performance at work?

Is an accounting firm a charity? No. While I was the only one who spoke up for Bob in the room, I wasn’t the only dissenter. One of my colleagues from the meeting, Taylor, came to my office afterward to express agreement and admiration for my stand on Bob’s behalf. I asked why Taylor didn’t speak up too. Taylor said that the decision was made before anyone stepped foot in that room and the performance review process simply didn’t matter.

Perhaps with more transparency and clarity, the performance review process could be a force for good, but I think we failed Bob. Should the firm have done more for him? What would you have done in the role of management? What would you want done if you were Bob? I should also note that there are accounting firms that take very good care of their employees, and the examples I’ve provided here could have occurred in any company, in any industry.

Management teams are made up of people, who bring their experiences, good and bad, into the room with them. And each manager’s assessment will be driven by the quality of their character. Your performance review is an opportunity to improve yourself, not the beginning or ending of your career.

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