Psychologist of Work and Organizations

How to conduct employees’ performance appraisal

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Performance appraisal is one of the most unwelcome steps in organizational life.

Mistakenly, we believe that this judgment comes only from the people who are assessed.

But, based on my consulting experiences, performance appraisal and, particularly the subsequent meeting with those appraised, are activities which are especially unpleasant for the evaluator.

Although it may seem paradoxical, it is the evaluator who feels they are put in a difficult emotional situation: it isn’t easy to say to an employee that he/she doesn’t work as expected, it’s hard to face the employee’s emotional reactions (anger, disappointment or frustration), and often the evaluator worries about generating a conflict, inside the team, that will affect the work in the future.

For these reasons, evaluators often tend to protect themselves from this disagreeable experience by simply avoiding it: “… We don’t need performance appraisal here … My staff knows that I don’t evaluate them. They work better in this way…!”.

Very frequently, managers in charge of the evaluation adopt a more subtle avoidance technique: they empty the evaluation of its real content, transforming it into a simple formality, a sort of organizational ritual: “I give the same evaluation to all the staff members. We don’t even need to do the appraisal interview, because they already know the results!”.

Needless to say, performance appraisal conducted in these ways is completely useless or, sometimes, even harmful.

On the other hand, we don’t consider the possibility that employees generally are happy to accept the chance to discuss their performance with their boss. One of the most frequent complaints I encounter during my consultacies is: “My boss never tells me if he/she is satisfied with my work!”

Of course, performance appraisal is more favourably accepted when the relationship between boss and employee is characterized by mutual trust and support (see the article “Managing the resistance to organizational change”) and when employees believe that it is conducted with fairness and transparent criteria.

Then, how can we make performance appraisal more effective?

First of all, we should be able to answer two questions:

  • why evaluate the staff?
  • why conduct the following assessment interview?

Performance appraisals should be used as an opportunity to align behaviours with best practice, for both the employee and their boss.

Through this evaluation, organizations try to reduce variability in behaviour that could negatively affect the achievement of the organization’s goals.

In less formal terms: through the performance appraisal, employees are encouraged to adopt functional behaviours and to correct or avoid those which are impeding or unproductive.

Appraisal evaluation is, for these reasons, an organizational tool aimed to coordinate and channel the efforts of all employees toward a common goal.

To conduct effectively the employees’ performance evaluation, some steps are fundamental:

  • the evaluation criteria must be completely clear to the evaluator;
  • the same evaluation criteria must be known by the employee assessed;
  • the professional behaviour’s observation should be conducted systematically and for a protracted period of time;
  • the assessment results should be communicated by the assessor to the employee, detailing how the behaviours adopted by him/her fit the requirements of the organization.

In other terms:

  • if we evaluate an employee, we must be sure to clearly understand which behaviours we want to encourage and which to correct. In practice, we should be able to clearly describe those behaviours, without using generic descriptions of personal characteristics (E.g. the criteria: “Openness and collaboration” that I found in a large company evaluation sheet is too generic!);
  • if an employee is evaluated, it should be clear to him/her what is appropriate behaviour and what is not. He/she must discover and understand this before the interview that follows the appraisal;
  • performance assessment can not be episodic. We should be able to systematically collect data about individual performance in real time annotating it;
  • evaluation, if not communicated and discussed with the assessed employee, has no organizational value because it doesn’t allow correction of performance.

A further clarification must be made here: the performance appraisal and the following interview, aimed to discuss and share the evaluation results, are two parts of the same process but they carry out different functions.

It should be clear that the “evaluation” can not be conducted during the interview. It’s a task the evaluator must accomplish before the interview, based on data and facts. The relevant data would be collected during a period of time generally ranging between six months and one year.

During this interval, according to the criteria adopted, the evaluator has to collect information on the working behaviours of the employee noting the most significant events, whether positive or negative.

The request for collection of this data generates an immediate objection from managers: “If I also have to take note of employees’ behaviours, I won’t have time for my work!”

Certainly it is another task to perform, but to have data available for the assessment (i.e. performed behaviours and specific events), will be helpful for:

  • conducting the interview with employees, which will be based on real examples and facts;
  • validating our assessment, which will be more objective. If based on facts, evaluations will be less biased by emotions or memory’s distortions.

To summarize, a proper performance appraisal requires:

  • the adoption of clear criteria and the communication of this to all levels of the organization;
  • the systematic collection of data about employees’ performance;
  • the sharing of the appraisal with the employee and the discussion with him/her of the results and the potential different points of view.

By adopting the criteria described and implementing the above steps, it’s possible to create a more effective and motivating performance appraisal, which minimizes the conflicts that evaluation often generates.

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