Managers cite employee performance appraisal as the task they dislike the most, second only to firing an employee. This dislike is understandable given that the process of performance appraisal—as traditionally practiced—is fundamentally flawed. The process is hurtful and demeaning, and both managers and employees avoid these conversations.
In fact, according to Chris Westfall, author or publisher of eight books about management:
Poor communication—and even avoiding communicating altogether—is a serious problem in organizations. A 2016 Harris Poll reveals that a stunning 69% of managers aren’t comfortable talking to employees for any reason at all. Worse still, one in five business leaders feels uneasy delivering the company line or even recognizing employee achievements.
Traditional performance appraisal is incompatible with the mission-oriented, participative work environments favored by forward-thinking organizations today. It is an old-fashioned, paternalistic, top-down, autocratic mode of management that treats employees as possessions of the company.
The Traditional Performance Appraisal Process
In the conventional performance appraisal or review process, the manager annually writes their opinions on the performance of a reporting staff member on a document supplied by the HR department. In some organizations, the staff member is asked to fill out a self-review to share with the supervisor.
Most of the time, the appraisal reflects what the manager can remember about the employee. Memory is usually of only the most recent events. Almost always, the appraisal is based on opinions. Real performance measurement takes time and follow-up to do it well.
The documents in use in many organizations also ask the supervisor to make judgments based on concepts and words such as excellent performance, exhibits enthusiasm, and achievement-oriented.
Many managers are uncomfortable in the role of judge. So uncomfortable, in fact, that performance appraisals are often months overdue. The HR professional who manages the appraisal system finds their most important roles are to develop the form and maintain an employee official file, notify supervisors of due dates, and then remind them if the review is long overdue.
Despite the fact that annual raises are often tied to the performance evaluation, managers avoid doing them as long as possible. This results in an unmotivated employee who feels their manager doesn't care about them enough to facilitate their annual raise.
Why Employee Performance Appraisal Is Painful
The manager may be uncomfortable in the judgment seat. They know they may have to justify their opinions with specific examples when the staff member asks.
They may lack skill in providing feedback and often provoke a defensive response from the employee, who may justifiably feel they are 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 their performance is rated as less than the best, or less than the level at which they personally perceive their contribution, the manager is viewed as punitive.
Disagreements Create Greater Conflict
Disagreement about contribution and performance ratings can create a conflict-ridden situation that festers for months. Most managers avoid conflict that will undermine workplace harmony. In today's team-oriented work environment, it is also difficult to ask people who work as colleagues, and sometimes even friends, to take on the role of judge and defendant.
Further compromising the situation, with salary increases frequently tied to the numerical rating or ranking, the manager knows they are limiting the staff member's increase if they rate their performance less than outstanding. No wonder managers waffle.
Building a Better System
If the employee appraisal approach taken is the traditional one it is harmful to performance development, damages workplace trust, undermines workplace harmony, and fails to encourage personal best performance.
Furthermore, it underutilizes the talents of HR professionals and managers and forever limits their ability to contribute to true performance improvement within your organization.
A performance management system starts with how a position is defined and ends when you have determined why an excellent employee left your organization for another opportunity.
Within such a system, feedback to each staff member occurs regularly. Individual performance objectives are measurable and based on prioritized goals that support the accomplishment of the overall goals of the total organization. The vibrancy and performance of your organization are ensured because you focus on developmental plans and opportunities for each staff member.
In a performance management system, feedback remains integral to a successful practice. The feedback, however, is a discussion. Both the employee and their manager have an equivalent opportunity to bring information to the dialogue.
Feedback is often obtained from peers, direct reporting staff, and customers to enhance mutual understanding of an individual’s contribution and developmental needs—commonly known as 360-degree feedback.
The developmental plan establishes the organization’s commitment to helping each person continue to expand their knowledge and skills. This is the foundation upon which a continuously improving organization builds.
The HR Challenge
Leading the adoption and implementation of a performance management system is a wonderful opportunity for the HR professional. It challenges your creativity, improves your ability to influence, allows you to foster real change in your organization, and it sure beats the heck out of nagging.