Got a 4? You Were Just Fired from Microsoft

imageThe way Microsoft’s review system works, a whole bunch of Microsoft employees just got their annual performance reviews. The September 15 paystub will reflect their new “numbers”.  If they got a merit increase the paystub will show it.  If they got a bonus, it will show up there too.

This post is for those Microsoft employees who are not happy with their review…

That September 15 date is what motivates managers to finally get busy delivering the bad news to employees who didn’t fare so well in stack ranking. As an employee you get ranked as one of the following:

1 You walk on water. We love you. We want to love you long time. Here’s an absurd amount of stock, an up-to 100% bonus, and a huge pat on the back. If we’re not promoting you right now, it’s probably because we just promoted you; we’ll get to it again RSN.

2 Stud/Studette! You are awesome in our eyes and we wish everyone else was just like you. You also get a nice healthy stock grant, a bonus that will make your spouse grin ear-to-ear, and a raise. Please, please, please continue what you’ve been doing.

3 Thank you. You did a fine job. We’d love to keep you around as you are clearly an asset to the company. Keep up the great work! Oh, and if you just do a bit more you could get a “2” next time. But also be careful because you were also close to getting a “4”.

4 I know it stings to hear this, but we are telling you Microsoft really doesn’t care about you anymore and would be just as happy having you work somewhere else. Yea, yea, you might still get a bonus, and there might be small raise involved, but promotion? Forget about it. And stock? Why would we give stock to someone who’s likely not going to be here next year? Ok, ok, maybe you can climb out of this hole over the next year. If you want to try, we’ll let you.

5 Don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. We’d fire you, but that’s just so messy. It’s far easier for us to make you feel unwanted and hope you leave.

Back in the day, the rating scale at Microsoft was inverted and had decimal points (5.0 was best; 1.0 was worst). NO ONE got a 1.0 and a 2.0 was exceedingly rare. 5.0s were given only to those who truly walked on water. A 3.0 was equivalent of a “4” and a 2.5 was a “5”.  I got a 3.0 once. Stung like hell. I was still relatively junior and had a phenomenal support network of mentors (you know who you are; thank you) and was able to ‘turn my career around’ and quickly get a few more “3.5” – “4.5” scores to suppress that all damaging “3.0”. It wasn’t easy.

While the new “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” scale is different, the tiers and messages that go along with them are the same. If you got a “4” this time you are generally in a world of hurt, especially at the higher levels (Level 64+). If you are a Level 64+ with a “4” you have the following options:

  1. If you know (for sure!) that your manager (and his/her peers) really, really like you and then absolutely kick ass in FY13. Work. Your. Ass. Off. If, by next Marchyou are not getting clear signals that you are on track for a “2” or “3”, polish that résumé and start looking elsewhere…
  2. Take the message to heart that your current organization would be happier hiring someone else in your place. Seek out other roles in the Company and find a new home. This will only really work if you have a strong network and there are people in other groups in the company who really, really already know you and have faith in you. Consider this: Why would a hiring manager hire someone with a “4” when there are other candidates (external!) who don’t have such a black mark?
  3. Join another company. You are likely not an idiot. In fact, you are likely quite skilled and capable in whatever job it is you like to do. Software developers are in huge demand, especially those with proven experience. Amazon and Google are hiring like crazy. I know of a bunch of startups that are looking for senior software developers (especially those that are .NET savvy!).

If you are a lower level than L64, don’t sweat it as much. Just buckle down and do more, faster, smarter. But do understand more than one “4” in a row and it’s game over for you at Microsoft.

Did you notice I said “software developer” above? This advice is really targeted at people who are good at and love actually writing software. It somewhat applies to program managers, product managers, and so forth, but hey, we work in the SOFTWARE industry. The only clear-cut jobs are for those who actually write the shit. Everyone else just helps. Frankly, in my experience, it is just harder for higher-level non-technical people.

I want to make clear that this post is in no way intended to be an indictment of Microsoft’s review system or how it compensates its employees. While I do have some pretty harsh feelings about how Microsoft is run, I have no experience being responsible for defining and executing a review and compensation system for a $74B company with 100,000 employees. I doubt you do either. This post is not about Microsoft. It is about Microsoft employees who got less than stellar reviews.

If you got a 4 this time around you need to ask yourself this one, very hard-core question, and you have to be completely intellectually honest with yourself:

Did you deserve it?

As you think about that question, consider the following:

  • Microsoft’s compensation package is phenomenally good.Base salary plus bonus plus stock plus fantastic healthcare (even with last year’s changes) plus facilities plus plus plus.  You are extraordinarily well paid. Especially in this economy.
  • How hard do you actually work? Do the people around you read Hackernews multiple times a day like you do? Do they go home at 9pm while you check out at 5? Do they sorta/kinda finish things, or do they nailthem? What about you?
  • Are you really in the right job? Are you doing what makes you happy? Are you a Red/Yellow in a Blue job?  Or a Blue in a Green job? (You know what I’m talking about).
  • Did you actively sell yourself? Hello, if at the level you are at, you have not learned It’s All Politicsthen you are naive and doomed. Do know your manager’s peers opinion of you? What did you do for THEM? If you scoff at this, stop reading now; nothing I write will help you.
  • Are you motivated by the right things?At any big company it is hard to avoid a plateau without managing people, and taking on all that goes along with that. This is particularly true at Microsoft. Do you want “more scope and responsibility” because you’ll be paid more or because it is your passion? If it’s about the money (or “becoming Partner”), then recognize that you set yourself up for this, and maybe you’re not so good at it. Would you rather be writing code? Then find a job where you can actually do that!
  • Are you thinking about your Career Trajectory wrong? Most people are.
  • My Job Decision Matrix tool might help you sort some of these things out.  I know it has helped others.

If, after considering the above, you really, really believe you deserved a better rating and that the system (or manager or someone  else) is at fault then…that sucks. I’m sorry. I personally witnessed people getting undeserved ratings, so I know it can happen. If you got screwed, you likely have even more motivation to seek out a job elsewhere. Everything above applies.

In the majority of the cases, though, I think you’ll find people got what they actually deserved. If, after soul-searching, you recognize you could have done better or you are not in the right job, then do something about it. There is no magic-bullet; it usually involves hard work and tough decisions.

Either way, all is not lost. As I mentioned above, there are lots of great jobs available out there. The startup world is full of them. You’ll have to scale back your expectations on cash-flow and benefits though. Big time. But you might end up being happier.

Or, you can fight on and continue to earn the great package Microsoft provides. But remember, it’s your choice.

As usual, keep the comments coming, but keep ‘em nice.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.