Appraisals can work

The latest bon mot of Lucy Adams, former BBC HR director, is that “Appraisals don’t work”, In her view, they simply serve to strike fear in the hearts of employees.

This is a refrain that is repeated by various commentators on a fairly regular basis.  A survey by the recruitment firm Badenoch & Clark in late 2012 put forward this view, suggesting that more than a third of UK workers considered appraisals to be simply a tick-box exercise.

Why then, despite the detractors, have they stood the test of time as the bedrock for managing the performance of individuals?

Let’s start with the design. Over the years, I’ve seen scheme after scheme that is fit only for the dustbin. Appraisals are not about paper, but the pro-forma needs to be designed in a way that prompts the right questions of both participants in the process.  Only then can there be proper evidence-based assessment of performance and potential, and a quality appraisal discussion.  

Typically, either the pro-formas are over-complicated and have no surface credibility as none of the sections join up in a logical progression, or they are so loose as to invite nothing more than a cosy chat.  

The latter variant is much loved by right-brained intuitive types who believe that performance management and talent development is all about having the right conversations. They may be right, but if left to the majority of busy managers who need processes and prompts to get things done regularly and properly, these conversations would never happen.

The former variant – the labyrinthine micro-detail one – is generally the product of somebody in HR copying bits and pieces from different schemes in an endeavour to make it look comprehensive and scientific without stepping back to consider what the true purposes of an appraisal are.

Where people dread their appraisals, there are a number of different reasons. There is the case of the “coaster” who fears that the annual dig into their doings might one day expose their idling. They usually breathe a sigh of relief when it transpires that the manager does not know how to dig or can’t be bothered.

There is the productive and ambitious employee who squirms with frustration and embarrassment as their line manager, ill-prepared, and on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, races through a hollow tick-box exercise. 

There is the person who works within a culture where feedback is never encouraged and given, unless it is to blame the nearest person every time something goes wrong at work.

For appraisals to be a powerful tool for personal direction and development and outstanding individual, team and organisational performance, I believe the following elementss must be in place.

Firstly, the appraisal must be based on a simple but robust competency framework that clearly specifies the behaviours which distinguish what the high performers look like in the company, linked clearly to the organisation’s values and goals. 

It must demand evidence-based assessment (and self-reflection) against both the competencies and the accomplishment of agreed objectives.  

There needs to be clear linkage between the competency requirements and the skills required to achieve objectives on the one hand, with the personal and career development plan on the other. Sections on the pro-forma need to be sequenced and flagged to make this linkage clear.  

360 degree feedback against relevant leadership and interpersonal competencies is essential, with people being encouraged to give the feedback by assurances that it will be fed back sensitively and with the emphasis on development and not punishment where improvement is needed.

Line managers must all be appointed on the basis of their genuine interest in spending quality time bringing out the best in others. Then they must be trained to carry out high quality appraisals, but as part of broader orientation in performance management, and staff development and coaching techniques. Training should involve role play to practice feedback skills.

Appraisees, as part of their induction, should have short training in how to make the most of their appraisal. This gets their buy in and understanding, so the appraisal discussion can be a genuinely meaningful and productive dialogue.

And finally, appraisals must not be a ‘once-a-year and stick the paperwork in a drawer’ event. Progress against the objectives and personal development plan should be tracked through structured one-to-one sessions over the year.

If these things are done, far from being a useless or fear-inducing event, employees will feel a real sense of direction and investment in their performance and development.  This will drive high performance in a way that no amount of performance-related pay can ever hope to do. 

Helen Giles is HR director of St Mungo’s Broadway and managing director of Broadway’s Real People, a social enterprise HR consultancy.

Twitter: @HelenMJGiles