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By Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D., SWE Editorial Board Chair

How Do I Prepare for Performance Reviews?

The performance review process can be particularly difficult to understand when you first enter the workplace, as it is a process most of us do not encounter until we are employed full time. To prepare for and have a successful performance review, be proactive and think about this process when you start your role rather than a few weeks before it is time for your performance review.

Follow these tips to prepare for your first performance review or to prepare for future performance reviews if you have struggled with them in the past.

Understand the review process

To have a positive and constructive performance review, it is important to first understand how performance reviews are handled at your company. Many companies are moving away from a single performance review per year and are trying to incorporate feedback on an active basis. Some companies still provide numerical ratings (e.g., 1–5, with 5 being exceptional and 1 likely to land you with a performance improvement plan), while others evaluate whether you have met or exceeded expectations.

If you work for a company that provides a bonus, it is important to understand how your bonus relates to your performance review; that is, your bonus may be higher with a higher rating. The best companies have a review process that is transparent and fair. If this is not the case, navigating a performance review becomes a bit more challenging. Use trusted colleagues or mentors in your company — especially those who have worked there for some time — to better understand the process.

Set objectives and understand expectations

A critical piece of the performance review process is setting objectives with your direct supervisor at the beginning of your performance review cycle. Generating SMART goals — those that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound — is critical to framing your work for the year. And keeping those goals updated perhaps quarterly, as projects change or are discontinued, is also important. If your company does not have a formal objective-setting process, find a way to align with your manager on what the expectations are for delivery and performance. Or consider a more formal way to document the process with your manager. Understand your manager’s expectations with respect to the objectives you have set. For example, can deadlines be flexible? And if they need to change, what is the process for adjusting them?

Document your contributions

If your company does one main performance review per year that is documented, it helps to track your accomplishments and contributions frequently in your personal records. I like to keep a document that I jot notes in every month or when key projects change or close. When you come to the end of the year, you won’t have to rely on your memory for something you did almost 12 months ago.

Ask for feedback

If you have peers or mentors you trust, they can serve as references and support for your performance reviews. It may help to request that people with whom you have worked closely on projects provide feedback to your manager about your contributions to those projects. Ensure that a handful of those folks are your seniors. Choose people who you know would speak positively about your contributions. Do not wait until the end of your performance review cycle to do this! Ask for feedback as you finish key projects or make it through key project milestones so that your contributions are fresh in others’ minds.

Consider the impact of your contributions

In documenting your accomplishments, consider the impact on your department and business. It is easier for others to understand how what you did made a difference if you can frame it for them. If possible, find a way to quantify your work. For example, you led a project that contributed 15% of the revenue to your department of 30 employees. Remember that your manager likely has several direct reports, and it could be that everyone’s contributions are considered in decisions about bonuses or other rewards. Lastly, there is no guarantee you will have supporters who will speak up on behalf of your performance, so don’t be afraid of the humblebrag.

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About the author: Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D. (she/her), is a director at AstraZeneca, where she leads a team in the cardiovascular bioscience department and leads cross-functional drug project teams in the early cardiovascular disease area. She holds a Ph.D. and an M.S. in bioengineering from Clemson University and a B.S. in biomedical engineering from Michigan Technological University. She joined SWE in 2005 and is currently serving as the chair of the editorial board. SWE recognized her as a Distinguished New Engineer in 2020.