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HR doesn’t end at ‘you’re hired’

By Dennis Nickson - Posted on 7 May 2013

Professor Dennis Nickson, head of Strathclyde Business School’s Department of Human Resource Management, looks at the top five things managers get wrong with appraisals…

Watching an advert for tonight’s first episode of the latest series of ‘The Apprentice’, I was reminded of the appraisal process, or, more specifically, the problems with it.

Much like the boardroom scenes in Lord Sugar’s show, appraisals are often quite tense affairs. However, seldom do ‘real-life’ senior managers and directors reviewing employees’ performance relish the process quite as much as the barrow boy done-good.

In fact, the annual, or six-monthly, appraisal is more likely to induce fear in both the appraiser and the appraisee. What’s worse, on top of their panic-inducing effects, far too often appraisals can be entirely useless.

So how can managers ensure the appraisal process is as painless, constructive and valuable as possible?

Following these five points should be any manager's starting point:

1.    Make it meaningful

Many managers dislike doing appraisals, feeling they lack the skills to adequately raise difficult performance issues, while employees feel disempowered to actually say what they want to get off their chests.

It all adds to a mindset where there is a pre-disposition not to arrive at anything meaningful, and produce middle-ground results.

To address this, performance must be promoted far more as a fact of organisational life. Appraisals must be integrated with broader performance management systems, so the awkwardness is taken out, and issues are talked about dispassionately.  Time must also be set aside to allow staff to talk about their own issues.

2.    Less ‘what’, more ‘how’

A common mistake is to focus on how an employee has met pre-determined targets without considering the skills and qualities they should embody. Targets might be met by an employee but the question of how they are met isn’t asked – and at what cost?

Rather than skewing performance in this way, setting manageable targets based on both attainment and behaviours should encourage competency and, naturally, achievement.

3.    No more ‘them and us’

An appraisal is exactly that - an appraisal of an employee’s work. It’s not about top-down, aggressive management.

At the end of any appraisal both the appraiser and the employee should come out with objectives, and - particularly for the appraisee – a renewed focus to achieve these.

To do this, it’s of fundamental importance that managers have a good appreciation of the role and responsibilities of their employees – what they actually do. Asking for a well thought out personal performance review with examples of an employee’s achievements, and their contribution to an organisation, as part of the appraisal process, can help to encourage this.

4.    What do you mean by ‘specific project deliverables’?

Management speak is an unavoidable part of everyday life but used poorly, especially in the context of an appraisal, it can be particularly damaging.

Plainly speaking, it comes down to communication. To ensure an employee gets the most from the appraisal process, it has to result in an agreed set of clear, deliverable objectives.

Setting these out in as clear, straightforward and detailed a manner as possible makes objectives more measurable.

5.    Praise Indeed

One of the greatest issues with an annual performance review is that praise is sometimes forgotten.

While it is of course important to address areas where an employee can improve, it's also just as important to talk about what they have achieved and to concentrate on development.

Constructive criticism, reviewing what an employee does particularly well and creating a plan which will allow these strengths to grow, increases motivation and improves performance of not only the individual but also the wider organisation.

By linking appraisals to wider performance management, recognising achievement, ensuring they produce considered objectives for employee development, managers will see returns in motivation, productivity and innovation. Combined, these factors should lead to lower employee turnover and less instances where managers have to deliver the unfortunate news, ‘you're fired!'

What is your experience of the appraisal process? How else can we ensure appraisals add value and promote employee development? Let me know in the comments below.

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