by Neil Harris
‘Oh wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us’
OR JUST –To see ourselves as others see us
Being appraised is not something we look forward to with unalloyed glee. As we feel that we work hard and give of our best criticism is a sensitive issue. Yet much can be gained from well-conducted appraisals. They can be good for us, good for the people we work with and good for our employer. Constructive criticism helps us not only to improve our performance in the job we do now but also to make decisions about the skills we need to develop in order to achieve our ambitions for our future career.
Not for settling scores
Appraisals are not the time for secretly held grievances to be suddenly poured out on the unsuspecting recipient. There is the apocryphal story of the employee who asked why he hadn’t had a rise or a promotion only to be told in a broad Lancastrian accent ‘Nobody likes ya!’ As Jane Harris, a human resources professional, puts it: ‘Previously unknown grouses should not be brought to appraisals. These should be dealt with at the time they occur and not held in abeyance. Appraisals are a time for taking stock of achievements and setting the agenda for future action.’ Storing up grievances for an explosive appraisal meeting should definitely be avoided.
Most employers use appraisals
We cannot know how we are viewed by our work colleagues, our manager, those we supervise, our customers, clients or suppliers. But it is useful periodically to focus on our performance and discuss this issue in confidence. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 87% of employers use some form of individual annual appraisals, 27% do them twice a year and 10% more often than that. Some use them when projects come to an end.
Employers see appraisals as a key part of a ‘performance management system’ designed to ensure that employees are in tune with developments in the business. It also ensures that individuals and teams are managed to achieve ‘high levels of organisational performance’. Many believe that appraisals encourage people to link their performance to the objectives of the organisation and respond to increased competition within their industry. Some link them to performance related pay but these are in the minority. Another CIPD survey discovered that 43% of employers link appraisals to reward.
While most appraisals are confidential between an employee and their manager some use what are called 360-degree appraisals. This involves getting the views of several people whose work relates to the employee in question. 360-degree appraisals can be customers and suppliers as well as close working colleagues. Administratively, this is more difficult requiring the collection of many different views but it does highlight problems that occur, especially if key people are unhappy with particular behaviours.
From an employee’s perspective, however, it is good to take the time to consider whether or not we are achieving the goals that have been set, preferably through discussion with our managers, and to discuss new goals that need to be addressed during the coming period of time. These may arise due to changing circumstances, alterations in how the business is run, staff changes that bring different responsibilities and a host of other possibilities.
Managers, like those they manage, often dislike appraising their staff. Appraisals work best if the appraiser has received training in how to conduct them and there is a document which allows both appraiser and appraisee to set down what are the key issues for each. Often staff members are required to complete a form before their appraisal and subsequently agree the content with their appraiser. They may be asked to assess for themselves their level of achievement over the preceding period and indicate what they have learned or skills they developed.
Looking forward, some typical documents ask staff members to consider what their objectives are for the coming period and to make proposals for what they might achieve. What support might they require and what additional resources will be necessary? A useful tool when setting objectives is the SMART acronym. They should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. In organisations, where rapid change is taking place, some argue that setting long term goals is counterproductive and that staff who plough on trying to reach previously defined goals that suddenly become outdated can harm an organisation’s progress. It is essential to be alert to change. Detractors to SMART use the acronym DUMB - defective, outdated, misdirected and bureaucratic. In many organisations and situations, though, time sensitive goal setting is a way to progress.
A third important aspect of appraisals is the consideration of a person’s training and development requirements. New situations arise, organisations change direction, technology moves on and we cannot rely on the skills we already have to see us through. Inevitably there is a need for training, and identifying that need is a valuable part of this discussion. Naturally the means of meeting it has to be available within an overall training budget and the time required to complete it must not detract from the effort needed for the person concerned to complete their work.
The case against
Critics of the use of personal appraisals say that performance appraisals negatively affect relationships between managers and their staff, creating fear and robbing people of their right to pride in their work which has the effect of decreasing motivation. Some say that it is fundamentally wrong to discuss past achievements and future goals in the same session. You cannot look at the past and the future at the same time, they say.
The history of appraisals goes back to the third century in China. It is a tool that has stood the test of time and has increased in popularity in recent years. Used sensitively it can be extremely valuable to employees and teams.