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The Hell of Appraisals: Making Them Work for Your Company

In many companies performance reviews or appraisals are that annoying process at the end of each year where a bored busy manager sits down with an employee who may be experiencing a range of emotions from the eagerly expectant to bored to nervous. The manger goes through the motions of assessing performance because “HR told him to”. In the end the manager ticks the “satisfactory performance” or “3/5” box for each point, and that’s that for another year.

This shouldn’t be what appraisals are about. If it’s what you’re doing, you might as well not waste your time on it.

Well done, performance appraisals are enormously useful, but like most things, they need to be properly prepared for, planned and executed. Above all, performance appraisals should be happening far more frequently than once a year. Any appraisal is a review of targets agreed, other relevant events and overall performance in the previous review period. It should also look forward to the future to discuss new objectives, plans, aspirations and actions to be taken to achieve them.

There shouldn’t be any surprises in a formal appraisal. While the appraisal process should be as positive an experience as possible, it is also the opportunity to review any difficult areas that have been discussed before (negative feedback should never be brought up for the first time in an appraisal meeting). The meeting should ultimately set out the clear view of where the employee is at, where he needs to go, where he wants to go and how he’s going to get there.

To have any sort of meaningful appraisal conversation, you have to provide and note regular feedback – I’m talking the day-to-day type of comments i.e. John did this well. Joanna needs a bit more help to meet the standard on this but is making progress. So that when it’s time to sit down for the one to one review meeting you have an accurate, contemporaneous note of your discussions which forms the basis of the review part of the discussion. A constant review process makes the feedback more immediate and meaningful. Targets can be refined and adapted faster to meet changing business needs and progress is monitored and commented upon regularly. It’s a dynamic ongoing two way conversation process.

Too many organisations leave the formal appraisal to a mammoth once a year meeting. The first appraisal I ever attended as a young manager being appraised was almost three hours long. I don’t recall it being either useful, accurate, interesting or motivational.

If the manager hasn’t kept regular weekly notes, the chances are he’ll be reviewing the last four-six weeks of activity because that’s all he can recall, which is scarcely a balanced approach. Most of the stuff has been forgotten by then and often targets are out of date or irrelevant. It’s a wasted opportunity. Performance appraisals are best done more frequently in shorter meetings.

Managers often don’t always make time for this kind of review. However, companies and software developers are working on ways to combat this.

Writing in Personnel Today, Cath Everett interviewed Roly Walter who has developed a new cloud-based appraisal system. His aim was to get away from the top-down approach many companies take where senior management want statistics to identify the weakest 10%. This clearly does not attract employees to the process or even the company.

The cloud system is intended to encourage employees to focus on their self-appraisal as part of their day-to-day work. They could upload comments from clients as they go along with concerns they have as they arise. Dropbox enables managers to see all of the key projects in one place to reduce the admin burden on their side.

The thinking is that with a smart system, employers and employees will be encouraged to engage with each other more as issues arise and put the results in one place so that the overall appraisal system becomes embedded in their careers.

Appraisals only work when managers feel they can use them to meet organisational targets and improve productivity. Employees will only engage in the process when they feel there’s value in it for them – be it recognition of the work they do, looking for personal development or improving their career opportunities.

Whether done through a smart cloud system or old fashioned note taking, performance appraisal will be easier to manage, more meaningful and more effective when the reviews are carried out using relevant contemporaneous information, in more frequent, shorter meetings.

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