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Eight ways to fix the appraisal process

Appraisals are universally hated, but why do we get performance reviews so wrong?

It is hard to think of a more despised HR process than the appraisal. Room 101 has beckoned for so long but none of us seem to want to put it there, 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, to view the form as a record of that conversation, and to have the conversation regularly.

To the majority appraisals have become a pointless administrative process. Something that must be done regardless of outcome. 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.

In one large organisation I know of there’s even a performance target about appraisal completion. How is completion measured? When the form reaches the HR department.

An MD friend would sooner die than introduce appraisals in his organisation. He asks: “when has an appraisal system ever added a penny value to my business?” It’s a fair question but I think, despite all the negatives, that he is wrong to miss the opportunity to discuss performance on an individual basis and secure a good knowledge of the strengths of his players.

Many organisations say they are ‘getting rid of appraisals’ but they are not. It’s the same process, just in a different wrapping. So where do we go? I have eight suggestions:

  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 their 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. Have a record on what actions are agreed but stop using the form as the process. 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 an end.
  4. Quality conversation time with an individual employee is sacrosanct. Not to be taken out of the diary lightly.
  5. Don’t raise performance issues for the first time in an appraisal. That is lazy and loses time to put things right. And it distracts the individual 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.
  7. HR's 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 what can be better ‘if only…’. And about what you as the manager will do to help the individual. Follow up on your actions immediately. Don’t be hounded by the employee for failing to do what you said you would.

Appraisals will not become a panacea for all ills but their origins were well thought-out and I am unaware of anything to replace them. But let’s dump the paperwork where it belongs.

Martin Tiplady is CEO of Chameleon People Solutions and former HRD of the Metropolitan Police