Do we really need appraisals?

smith and jones

I spoke to a Chief Executive recently who was leaving the position they had held for over ten years to embark on a portfolio career.  “I will miss many things about my job” he told me “but I won’t miss appraisals.”  Now, every good Chief Executive is expected to support and embrace the performance appraisal process.  We are told that appraisals are an essential part of performance management.  They provide an opportunity to evaluate an individual’s performance and also to consider their development and training needs.   The existence of a comprehensive appraisal system is normally thought to reflect well on employers, indicating their commitment to developing their staff and their compliance with best practice in performance management.   Why then did this Chief Executive hold such a negative view about something that is universally considered to be a ‘good thing’?   

I too have experience of performance appraisals in a range of organisations and, although I appreciate the rationale for appraisals, I too have some reservations about their value. 

Appraisals are often considered to be a time-consuming chore by both the line manager and the person being appraised.  A great deal of form filling is normally required both before and after the appraisal and the meeting itself can take more than two hours.  For one line manager with ten or more staff the amount of time involved to complete the process can easily exceed thirty hours.    And what is the return on this considerable investment of time?

Line managers often lack the skills required to conduct an appraisal.  The process requires them to listen, ask relevant questions, provide clear feedback, address performance problems, and so on.  All these skills need to be learnt and practised – not all line managers have that opportunity.  And it is not easy for a manager to both give encouragement and raise performance issues at the same meeting.  Yet most appraisals require managers to adopt these apparently contradictory attitudes –  is it any wonder  that the person being appraised often leaves the meeting not knowing whether they’ve been praised or admonished?

The mistake that companies often make is to assume that the implementation of a performance appraisal process represents good performance management.  This is not the case.  Good performance management requires regular and consistent communication with employees (at the corporate and individual level) about what is expected from them, how their performance will be assessed and how well they are doing against those measures.  Line managers should recognise their responsibility for giving clear direction to employees.   They should be communicating with their staff every day, encouraging and a two-way dialogue so that employees are able to raise concerns, put forward suggestions and ask for support.  I often think that, if line managers were better at leading, motivating and managing the performance of their staff, the annual appraisal meeting would be irrelevant and unnecessary. 

“If we stopped doing appraisals I wonder if anything would change” mused my CEO friend.  I wonder.

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  • Clare M

    We need to be having the conversations on performance every day/week/month and not just once a year. Most appraisal systems, in my view, are overly process driven and don’t encourage conversations. Having started a new role, I have revamped our appraisal system and will let you know whether it works, ie whether it promotes a continued conversation about performance and plans.

  • redsprings

    Ah what a Nirvana! No appraisals, no forms, no process for HR to manage….if only! I think they exist because of the points you raise Jeanette. Yes, managers need to have more leadership qualities and be able to guide their people through their roles and their careers. It should however, be a two way street. As employees, people need to be asking managers and leaders their objective opinion about their performance. Without a formal performance management structure, these conversations would never happen. A well structured appraisal (the word itself sends the wrong message in my opinion!) or evaluation of performance needs to be feedback from both people in it. Feedback on performance, including managing up – giving the manager feedback on their performance.

    It is also an HR Department’s role to ensure managers do have the skills. Part of seeing the appraisals is to determine whether they are doing it right. If it comes back with unclear objecitves, or is 24 pages long (yes, I have seen them!), then the HRD or Head needs to be having discussions with the managers in question and closing the loop and finding solutions to these problems.

    Sadly good ones are few and far between. Ideally we all would be having conversations about performance every week, or at least every month. That way they become business as usual, rather than a 6 monthly process to shy away from! The way we communicate in business reflects the performance appraisal route. If open and honest communication is promoted, more of this would happen organically.

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