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Appraisals – why are they so hated?!

A conversation about performance reviews and why we get them so wrong

A client of mine had a 33-page appraisal form. Declined by the HR department if not properly filled out and the subject of a long interview with the individual member of staff. Twice a year. You know the rest. The form eventually landed in HR – properly completed of course – and was filed away carefully in the personnel file, never to be seen again either by HR or anyone else. Well, not with a view to any action anyway.

It is hard to think of a more despised HR process. Room 101 has beckoned for so long but none of us in HR seem to want to put it there. Why? Probably because we have nothing to replace it with.

For a long time, we have talked about the need to regard performance appraisal as a ‘quality conversation’ between manager and report. And view the form as a record of that conversation, though certainly not 33 pages worth, and to have the conversation regularly.

To the majority, it has become a pointless administrative process. Something that must be done regardless of outcome. We now even have pre-appraisal forms required to be filled in by the individual! Sometimes, a manager raises issues of concern for the first time in an appraisal. I have even heard of individuals filling out their own appraisal forms to be signed by the manager to save him – yes it was a ‘he’ in this instance – having to do it himself!

All the negativity I hear is about the forms, the administration, the bureaucracy, the worthlessness. Is it any wonder then that appraisal has become such a dirty word? Managers hate it. Appraisees despise it. Yet most organisations still have an appraisal system. Perhaps in order to be able to tick a performance box me thinks!

How about this one then and  a true story in one large UK organisation - a performance target about appraisal completion! Not a word though about performance improvement! A target that demanded 95% completion – nothing else! How is completion measured? When the form reaches the HR department! Never mind the quality, feel the width!

An MD friend of mine would sooner die in a ditch than introduce an appraisal system in his organisation. I don’t blame him for his take on appraisal systems. His retort confidently expressed “When has an appraisal system ever added a penny value to my business?” A fair question and in his case, I know that the answer will not persuade him but I do think, despite my points here, that he is wrong to miss opportunity to discuss performance on an individual basis and secure a good all round knowledge of the strengths of his players.

I have read all the new performance appraisal systems including the ones that purport not be an appraisal.  But they are - just in a different wrapping!

So where do we go? Well let me point out a few requirements from my perspective:

  1. We owe it to staff to give good dollops of time to comment on strengths, weaknesses, performance and progress. If we do not, we abrogate our responsibility.
  2. We have many conversations with staff about individual tasks. But how do we know how staff feel? What the ambitions are? What the training and development needs are? What the areas of concern are? We store a lot by ‘exit interviews’. But that is all too late. What about regarding appraisals as ‘stay’ interviews?
  3. Let’s dump appraisal forms. Yes - lets have a record on what actions are agreed. But stop using the form as the process. It is a record. Nothing more. The object of the exercise is not to complete a form. It is to understand how an employee feels. And to confirm how you and s/he are going to develop him/herself. The form is a means to and end. Nothing more.
  4. Quality conversation time with an individual employee is sacrosanct. Not to be taken out of the diary lightly. Or in one case of which I am aware – have it rearranged 9 times. And by the way, he is still waiting and will do so until September when the next term starts. That person now knows what their manager thinks of him.
  5. Don’t raise performance issues for the first time in an appraisal conversation. That is lazy and loses time in order to put things right. And it distracts the individual employee to defend their small corner when a broader view of life is required.
  6. Have a conversation with other managers about their appraisals. Calibrate results and agree company wide actions as well as individual actions. Consistency too.
  7. The HR job is not to store the forms but to talk with managers about results, analyse them, consider organisational requirements and learning and put remedy plans in place.
  8. Be honest and straightforward in use of language. But talk about negativity positively - about what can be better ‘if only…’ and about what you as the manager will do to help the individual. And follow up on your actions immediately. Don’t be hounded by the individual for failing to do what you said you would do. Unless that is, you intend to become the problem!

There are 100’s of other tips. But have a look through these as a starter for 10!

I am not saying that appraisal will become a panacea for all ills but its origins were well thought out and I am unaware of anything to replace it.

But let’s dump the paperwork where it belongs!

Martin Tiplady
7 September 2016

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