How to get appraisals right

By adopting a well thought-through system of feedback, with equal weighting between managers and employees, organisations can use appraisals to help create a motivated workforce.

Feedback sessions and reviews can often be painful or pointless affairs. Even mature businesses with time-honoured procedures sometimes fail to extract genuine value from them. What begins as a well-intentioned programme for assessing, guiding and motivating employees can, over time, become little more than an excuse for a chat and a break from work, and anything useful that is learnt is often quickly forgotten.

Falling at the first hurdle

The issue is often a misinterpretation of what personal development really means, and how businesses can best achieve it. As such, failure lies in the process, not the motivation behind it. After all, no business wants its people to be unmotivated and unhappy. So, how can you use this motivation to turn staff assessments into a real business benefit?

A framework for personal development

Businesses that want to optimise the appraisal process must first create a context or framework to inform it and to help set benchmarks. This framework should take into consideration the goals of the department and the wider business, the parameters of the role, what success means in this role, the ideal career path and how each staff member can achieve it.

“Managers don’t have the monopoly on feedback; their performance is arguably more important than that of staff working a rung below them on the career ladder”

Without a considered set of criteria it’s difficult to gauge the extent to which people are slipping behind or charging ahead, or to work out where their strengths and weaknesses lie and in what areas. An appraisal framework forms the basis of rewards for high achievers, and encouragement for people who need more support: for this reason, it should be revisited periodically. Job descriptions evolve as employees develop and take on new tasks, and this process should be reflected during appraisals, and frameworks adjusted accordingly.

Incentivising staff

Managers need to be aware of the kinds of carrots they can dangle, as well as the penalties they can potentially mete out for poor performance. Is a promotion or a pay rise really on the cards? Too often managers use these enticements freely and groundlessly, with employees expecting progress or a firm decision when their next appraisal is due. Managers need to know the precise range of incentives they are authorised to offer before entering a meeting room. Equally important, they need to provide advice on what criteria must be met before staff members get access to incentives. 

Keeping track of the paper trail

It is important to document exactly what is said during an appraisal; there is no point promising an outcome or providing actionable feedback if this is forgotten by the manager as soon as they leave the room. 

It is therefore critical to log the details, not just by making notes on a pad – which can be easily mislaid or thrown away – but using software that aids the process and provides a recoverable record of the issues at hand. This record should subsequently be made available to managers and employees.

Software packages range from the social sharing of feedback through Small Improvements, SalesForce and SpiderGap, to more formal feedback sessions with questions and responses logged for later reference.

Two-way conversation

Managers don’t have the monopoly on feedback; their performance is arguably more important than that of staff working a rung below them on the career ladder. Although junior employees haven’t traditionally been given the right to reply, feedback at this level is critical to the progress of an organisation.

As with staff appraisals, this feedback should be taken formally and officially, and certainly not take the form of whispered criticisms to senior managers during Friday night drinks. Again, software is on hand to help organisations create an indelible record of performance across the group, which adds up to a 360-degree appraisal of people within a business.

Feedback and appraisals have a vital role to play in motivating and progressing staff, and ensuring targets are being achieved. With a few simple tweaks and a small investment of time and money, you can create an appraisal system that benefits the individuals and the organisation.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK