Do appraisals work – really?

This question raised its head a couple of years back and I commented on it then, with the view that they should be kept, so long as certain criteria were met. There were powerful reasons for and against appraisals then, and these days it seems many people are moving away from them. Why – and what’s to be done instead?

Why can appraisals be Bad?

  • For starters: they can take ages, managers put off doing them, then do them in a rush. So not enough time goes into getting the input right.
  • Many organisations have a grading system where people are given a number. [Giving someone one number – for a whole year’s worth of work? Yep, that’s going to make for a positive conversation.] That can lead to endless debates about ‘cross-cal’, or benchmarking and calibration aimed at achieving consistency and fairness.
  • The language of appraisals often bears a strong resemblance to a school report – ‘must try harder’ – and the recipient will thus often feel as empowered as your average 7-year-old pupil.
  • Both the appraiser and appraisee can find the process excruciating.

But should they be ditched? I’d worry about completely dumping the system, because if that happened, it’s unlikely that managers would discuss performance at all. The marked reluctance I often see around performance conversations when I run our ‘How to handle appraisals’ workshop convinces me that this hasn’t changed – yet.

It’s my hope that one day we will be able to ditch long-winded and time-consuming appraisals, and I think the time will be right when they are simply a way of briefly formalising the conversations that people have about work performance on an everyday basis. That’s a big ask. People, particularly Brits here in the UK, typically squirm at the idea of discussing performance, and many aren’t very skilled at doing it. But I’m hearing that there’s finally a shift happening in some quarters.

What’s driving this change is Gen Y employees, who’ve been accustomed to frequent performance rating and review all through education and are now not prepared to wait for an annual appraisal to come round so they can be told how they’re doing at work. They want performance discussions on a regular, real-time basis. Not only that, those discussions are far more likely to be two-way – so managers need to brace themselves for feedback about their own performance as part of the discussion.

Unlike appraisals which take time, regular conversations that deal with performance – great or otherwise – as it happens are much shorter than appraisals.

But what about setting goals and objectives? That obviously still needs to happen and I believe it will when performance discussions are part of the everyday way of working. Unlike the annual appraisal, where goals can be filed and forgotten within hours, when regular performance discussions happen on-going and updated goals and objectives will keep people on track and foster greater accountability.

Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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