Performance anxiety

It's the annual corporate ritual that everyone dreads. So how can we take the pain out of performance appraisals?

Employees think it sucks because it’s a waste of time and they feel talked down to.

The managers loathe it because they’re not trained to give them, often don’t feel confident doing them, and it just adds to their workload.

For most managers, the performance appraisal is second only to firing people when it comes to the tasks they resent the most.

There is a number of fundamental problems associated with performance appraisals. Apart from the lack of training for managers, some HR departments push a total compliance line, which means the focus is on getting it done, rather than the quality of the experience.

Furthermore, some managers have their favourites, so bad luck if there’s no connection for you during the appraisal.

But companies keep doing it, even if most of them don’t do it that well. It has been estimated that only about 35 to 40 per cent of companies do performance reviews well - and some might say that’s being generous.

HR expert Susan Heathfield says performance appraisal systems don’t work for a very good reason. They come from a time when company management was more autocratic and treated employees as chattels.

In those days, you didn’t have a choice as an employee, you just stayed and copped it. Things are more fluid now so the top down approach traditionally used in appraisals doesn’t work.

So at a time when more companies are creating flatter team structures, it’s hard to get people to step back and take on the role of judge and defendant.

“The manager is uncomfortable in the judgment seat,’’ Heathfield writes. “He knows he may have to justify his opinions with specific examples when the staff member asks. He lacks skill in providing feedback and often provokes a defensive response from the employee, who may justifiably feel he is under attack.

Consequently, managers avoid giving honest feedback which defeats the purpose of the performance appraisal. In turn, the staff member whose performance is under review often becomes defensive. Whenever his performance is rated as less than the best, or less than the level at which he personally perceives his contribution, the manager is viewed as punitive.”

So how do we make them better?

HR consultant Sharlyn Lauby, otherwise known in the blogosphere as HR Bartender, says the best solution is to abolish them and replace them with regular conversations. “If managers were trained in the proper way to give performance feedback and then talked with employees on a regular basis about their performance . . . there would be no need for a performance appraisal,’’ Lauby writes. “Now it might not eliminate a formal documented conversation.  But the formal conversation wouldn’t be focused on past performance.  It would be about goals and the future.  Let’s call it an annual development discussion.  Totally different conversation.”

Not a bad idea, but you still need something that documents, tracks and gauges how people are performing and whether they have grown. I have talked to a number of HR specialists and there are many excellent questions managers can ask in performance appraisals that create real connections with employees and are linked to organisational goals.

And it’s been pointed out that a performance appraisal by itself is not going to do anything. Instead, they say managers should be talking to their staff every day, even if it’s just briefly, and then making sure they have deeper conversations at least once a month.

What is your experience of performance appraisals - and how might it be improved?