Performance Appraisals: Critical Conversations

No one likes performance appraisals. Managers hate giving them. Employees hate receiving them and HR professionals hate policing the process. As one manager explained to me, doing a performance appraisal is similar to getting a root canal: both are painful; neither will kill you; but with a root canal, the trauma is over the next day. And yet, we continue to insist on doing appraisals hoping for different results.

When faced with this indictment, HR professionals will quickly spew the virtues of appraisals: great tool to assess performance; ideal opportunity to focus on employee development; opens up communications between managers and employees; chance to clarify performance expectations. And they are right.

So if conducting regular appraisals has all these benefits, what can be done to reduce anxiety and increase their chances for success?

Training managers on how to appraise employee performance is a start. When managers know how to have a real conversation with their employees, rather than merely getting knowledge in filling out a form in a timely basis, then good things begin to happen. Yet even after training, managers still report that although things might seem to be better, the results for an appraisal are not what they want. They know that the best appraisals let them have an honest, frank, two-way discussion about their employees’ successes, mistakes, areas of development, and the future. But a conversation takes two people actively participating—and that’s the crux of the problem. Managers often complain that employees don’t take the process seriously; that they don’t participate, often coming to the interview unprepared. During the interview they don’t talk or contribute, acting as if they were being sent to the gallows.

Yet, before we give up, it is equally important to understand the employee’s perspective. When asked about the process, employees often spout similar threads:

1. see themselves as victims of the process

2. believe the results are predetermined

3. don’t know what to expect

4. think appraisals are something “managers do”

5. don’t realize they have a role

6. have had bad experiences in the past and think this is the norm

7. sense that the managers really don’t want them to participate and speak

We need to rethink how we train our managers, and we must begin training employees. Excluding employees is like buying a Mazaretti without an engine: it looks good, but it doesn’t work. Employees cannot be expected to participate fully when they do not know how. Prepare them for the interview. Communicate that appraisals are about growing careers and not a report card grading past performance. Open the process.

Training works when it contains four critical elements:

1. A simplified process: performance appraisal is simply a conversation between a manager and an employee about current performance, expectations about the future, and how the two of them can work together to ensure that the employee is successful. Nothing more. When seen in this light, both parties will be comfortable and they’ll start talking.

2. An emphasis on the future: what happened in the past is over. You cannot change the past, but you can affect the future. Yes, there will be discussions about last year’s performance, but the focus must be on today and tomorrow. If problems exist, correct them. Playing the blame game or going for a gotcha will not move the process in a positive direction.

3. Focus on benefits: managers must see how they’ll benefit from spending so much time on what they perceive as an HR mandate. Show them how they can impact an employee’s performance. Help them understand when an employee’s performance soars, managers are the beneficiaries. For employees, when they see how they can influence the appraisal process and affect the direction of their career, they’ll quickly jump into the process—with both feet.

4. Open and respectful: discussions about performance appraisals conjure up all sorts of horror stories. Few have positive things to say about them. This paradigm will only change when both parties approach the process openly and deal with each other respectfully. Both elements foster trust and without either, there is no point in beginning.

But education is still not without risk. It can be threatening for everyone. Sometimes managers believe that a prepared employee will now challenge them by asking tough questions, moving the appraisal process in a different direction than they had planned. For employees, asking them to actively participate and take control of their career can be scary.

For HR Managers, this presents a unique opportunity to add real value to the organization. Preparing both employees and managers, providing training, coaching and guidance, along with some hand-holding, can result in opening the dialogue between managers and employees, encouraging employees to actively participate in managing their careers; and ultimately moving everyone to a higher level of performance. And isn’t that the purpose?

Performance appraisals are a great tool when everyone is involved in making them work. Preparing managers and employees is the first step.



Rick Dacri offers senior executives and managers the human-relations expertise and hands-on skill they need to improve employee productivity and engagement, mitigate risk and position their organization for success. Dacri is the author of the book Uncomplicating Management: Focus on Your Stars & Your Company Will Soar. Dacri brings more than 25 years of experience in senior management, organizational development, and human resources, all ...

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