Annual appraisals – good, bad or just ugly?

Rushmore: If managers shy away from difficult conversations,  there is little discussion of any problems, and similar scores are awarded across the board.
Rushmore: If managers shy away from difficult conversations, there is little discussion of any problems, and similar scores are awarded across the board.

Many companies are moving away from annual appraisals towards monitoring employees’ progress throughout the year. Keely Rushmore offers advice on how to ensure that appraisals support performance instead of focusing on the negative.

The appraisal system is frequently a source of frustration for all concerned, be that HR professionals, managers or employees, many of whom view it as a box ticking exercise with no meaningful or positive outcome. And in all fairness, in many organisations, this is not far from the truth.

However, an appraisal system, with careful planning, conduct and follow-up, can lead to positive results: an employee’s performance, efficiency and motivation can increase, and inevitably their employer will feel the benefit in terms of improved output.

Legally speaking

Unfortunately, many managers shy away from difficult conversations, leading to little or no discussion of any problems with employees, and similar appraisal scores being awarded across the board. This can make the process meaningless.

There’s no legal requirement for employees to be appraised. However, fairly dismissing an employee for poor performance without formal appraisals will be difficult, as the issues are unlikely to have been documented.  Indeed, the employee may be oblivious of their shortcomings (and therefore not have been given an opportunity to address them). Similarly, appraisal scores can be useful tools in redundancy selection processes, but if everyone has similar scores then their value is minimal.

Annual or ongoing appraisals?

An annual appraisal has been likened to throwing darts at a dartboard blindfolded, and only being shown your score 12 months later. Both positive and negative experiences will have faded, and the opportunity to learn from mistakes or to capitalise on successes may have been lost. In recent years there has been an increasing trend for businesses to move away from the traditional annual appraisal to a process of ongoing performance review or “mini” appraisals throughout the course of the year. An ongoing process can be more manageable and meaningful for all concerned.

Training

To maximise the benefits of the appraisal process, it’s vital that both employees and managers participate fully (many employees view it as one sided), and that they understand what they are doing, why and how. Often there is an incorrect assumption that a manager – simply because they are a manager – will know how to conduct an appraisal. Training can help them to understand their role and how to get the best from the process.

Preparation

Appraisals often focus on the negatives. If employees and managers prepare beforehand (with the employee completing a self-assessment and the manager completing a pre-appraisal form) this can provide a structure, allowing the highs – as well as the lows – of the employee’s performance to be discussed.

Conducting an appraisal

During appraisals it’s important to consider whether the employee has met their targets is, but it’s equally key to explore how the employee has met those targets – what skills have they used and how can they be improved?

Remembering that the appraisal is a two-way process, and allowing the employee a full opportunity to have their say is vital.

After the Appraisal

Too often, everyone breathes a sigh of relief after the appraisal, and the forms get filed neatly away. Yet the real value in appraisals is setting a path for the future, and helping the employee to progress. This is where the “mini” or ongoing appraisal system can be particularly helpful.

Ideally, the employee and manager should agree on a small number of specific, unambiguous, actions points (three to five objectives is ideal), which are followed up periodically throughout the year.

And finally…

There is potential for an organisation’s appraisal process to have a significant positive effect on all concerned. However, one size does not fit all, and it’s important to tailor your approach, train your managers and to demonstrate a commitment to a fair and organised approach.

About Keely Rushmore

Keely Rushmore is a senior associate in the employment team at SA Law.
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