I Got Your Annual Review Right Here: A Word on Accountability

Can I talk to you for five minutes about corporate life?  As of this writing, I have spent sixteen consecutive months in the wasteland of the working world.  This is far longer than I initially intended, and is especially shocking when you consider how popular it is to be unemployed these days.  From what I hear, there are literally dozens of people out there who would love to have jobs but don’t.  It seems almost immoral for me to continue working every day when I am so obviously unsuited for it and so many others would love to do it for me.

What is it about work that I find so unsatisfactory?  Almost all of it.  The bad coffee.  The expectation that I wake up earlier than The Price is Right.  The pervasive sports analogies.  The existence of “workplace humor” (a.k.a. the handicapped cousin of comedy).  The requirement that I spend several hours a day thinking or talking about things unrelated to sports, movies, attractive women, or gambling.  It’s all insufferable, but there is another, even more unbearable aspect of employment that has me plotting my escape from the professional work quicker than you can say “stay at home dad.” It can be summarized in one word: accountability.

Companies love holding their employees accountable (Enron, the United States Government, and Tiger Woods’ family being notable exceptions).  They love it like they love government bailouts and Atlas Shrugged.  Chances are, if my superiors aren’t forwarding patriotic chain emails or playing Spider Solitaire, they’re coming up with creative new ways to make sure I actually do the things I say I’m going to do.  Corporate structures are designed to efficiently and mercilessly squeeze the slacker out of people like me.  The process has not been pleasant.

Four years of college taught me that accountability was avoidable, and I have not taken kindly to its sudden reintroduction into my life.  I got through college the same way all lazy extroverts do, I smiled a lot and brought donuts to study groups.  In class projects, extra-curricular activities, and group presentations I was conditioned to over-promise and under-deliver with the assurance that my Type-A partners would always pick up my slack.  I discovered that some of my classmates actually loved learning and I realized the best gift I could give them would be to let them learn for me.  All I had to do was be present and enthusiastic.

Turns out things are a little different in the real world.  In the real world people care about things like results, individual contribution, and pretending to care.  This has taken some getting used to.  I remember vividly the shock of my first performance review.  My boss wanted an update on my “progress” with the “personal goals” I had set six months prior.  I hadn’t planned on having to talk about those again.  I assumed personal goals were like being on Student Government – they looked good on paper and people would be impressed, but I wouldn’t actually have to do anything.

I was a business major for crying out loud!  What did I know about clearly stated expectations and grading scales that accurately reflect effort?  For four years, my performance was appraised on the basis of facial hair, Facebook friends, and an easily-skewed two digit number.  That’s the world I want.  I want to go back to the time when a professor’s appreciation of me as a person could drastically alter my final score.  I want study partners and collaborative assignments.  I want people to say things like “If you get a chance” and “whenever you get around to it” and “never mind, I’ll just do it myself.”

At some point next week, I will endure my second round of annual reviews.  At least this year I know what to expect.  My boss is going to sit me down and say things like “adding value this” and “developmental opportunity that” and I’m going to say things like “I’ll try harder next year” and “Mark got on my computer and went to those sites when I was out to lunch.” I guess this is how these things go.  But still, wouldn’t it be easier to just give me a B- and move on?

Maybe next year.

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