Worst Rating: “Meet Expectations”

I lived through multiple recessions: During the dot-com bubble in the late 90s, I was fired and remained jobless for months. Then during the late 2000s financial crisis, it was my turn to fire people and throw them into the abyss of joblessness.

All these experiences taught me a lot about being an employee and convinced me that “meet expectations” was the worst place to be.

You see, in the real world, these two categories of employees mostly don’t exist:

  • Great colleagues who work hard and deliver great work
  • Shitty colleagues who are lazy and deliver shitty work

I wish things are so black and white. In reality, most employees fall inside the “meet expectation”/”middle of the pack” pile. Most of us are not the best, not the worst, mostly okay, and never perfect. As a result, one of the most numbing management tasks is to decide whom to promote or fire from this massive blob of sameness.

When I had to lay off people, I had to pick from folks that never had a poor rating. The decisions were haphazard and fraught with personal relationships. I was crippled by a deep sense of wrong and suffocating guilt.

As for an employee, being in “middle of the pack/meet expectation” is a crappy position to be in. When I was fired, I never had a poor rating. Yet because I was just another one of the many, my performance and career prospects were decided by methods that were no better than a draw from a hat. I was crippled by a deep sense of injustice and suffocating shame.

I want to propose a few categories to break up the messy middle. These categories are less quantitative but more descriptive and nuanced:

  1. Who are your colleagues who are great to work with, energetic, positive, but only do ok/adequate work? These are the employees who always put their hands up in town halls, who you want to hang out with at the bar during offsites, but aren’t your super stars when in comes to results.
  2. Who are your colleagues who are role models of hard work but show uneven judgement and need a lot of hand holding? They work really really hard, but don’t want to / know how to evolve, and their stubbornness often lead to unsatisfactory decisions.
  3. Who are your colleagues who are exceptionally gifted and high performing but are complainers/pessimists? Folks that your customers love, your employees relate to, and folks you wish you know how to quit them.

From experience, in order to make better people decisions, you can line these employee categories up against the goals, the values, and the culture you are nurturing in your teams.

Do you desperately need results because you need to raise another round of funds?
Are you at a stage where you must deliver a great product?
Or is your team at a size where clear and consistent culture and values is needed to pull everyone together?