An appraisal of appraisals: satisfactory, though past their sell-by date

01 December 2015 -


Nothing stirs the emotions quite like an appraisal form. Is it a) an accurate staff evaluation technique or b) a 360 degree waste of space? Take our special appraisal assessment quiz and find out for yourself

Professor Adrian Furnham, guest blogger



 A little quiz…


No other topic exercises people quite so much as problems with their appraisal system. Hence all the stories about Deloitte, Microsoft and Gap binning their appraisal systems. We can infer why but it’s not clear what the alternative is; indeed if there is one.

More than 60 years ago Douglas McGregor (the man who invented Theory X and Y) wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that was rather sceptical of appraisal systems.

In it he argued that they had three basic aims: To provide data to make better people decisions (salary, promotion, success, transfer); to let employees know how they are doing (and what to do differently); and to be a means of coaching and development. Simple and true.

But most appraisal systems fail constantly. Get 100 working adults from the public or private sector and ask: are they happy or satisfied with the appraisal system? You’d be lucky to find half a dozen who say yes.

Appraisal systems give HR a hard time and a bad name. But why? Surely the aims make good sense. Surely you can make better people decisions with better data. Surely people need accurate and useful feedback on how they are (or should be performing). And surely it’s not a bad idea to help people find and develop their strengths.

Systems fail for obvious and logical reasons. They have been documented many times:

Managers are not trained in how to use the system: How to set objectives or specify success criteria. How to conduct a meaningful appraisal session so that there is real dialogue, no hidden agendas and sensitive differentiating score.

Staff development plays little role in a manager’s own appraisal: Are managers devoted to, and rewarded for actually developing their staff? Do they believe they are a coach, trainer or mentor or not? And do they know what to do? Mostly this is all froth and plays no real part in promotions.

Staff are passive observers, not active participants, in the whole process: Are the appraisees active or passive participants in the appraisal process? Do they believe appraisal is something done to them, for them or by them? Do appraisees have a role in setting their own goals and standards and monitoring their performance? Often not.

Appraisals are full of accusations, denials and excuses, not about how to work well: Are appraisal sessions forward-looking, problem solving-focussed or are they strictly evaluative looking at past performance? Are they blame-storming sessions or attempts to improve future performance? Is the appraiser a judge or a counsellor or somehow simultaneously both?

The efforts involved in the process are not proportionate to the rewards: Most crucially, is the effort worth it? Does it place a quite unreasonable workload or burden on managers? Is it all really demonstrably a good investment of time? Are managers, particularly those who manage more than a dozen people, given any help?

Appraisal data is stored but rarely used: Is all the information gathered in this process accessible and useful in decision-making? If not, what is the point of the whole exercise?

The system is too generic and vague: Are they tailored enough to the demands of the individual workers? Or if they are so idiosyncratic can you compare individuals?

The appraisal system is confused with the pay-for-performance system: And when the profits are low and the bonuses small, it seems a pointless paper chase.

Managers are punished for not doing any or good appraisals, but never rewarded for doing it well: Indeed, is doing appraisals part of the central job description of managers themselves?

Appraisals are an increasingly legal necessity: It becomes very problematic, if not impossible to sack an incompetent, lazy or feckless employee without having evidence that they were given appropriate and clear feedback on their performance.

It is this last point that seems to focus the mind more clearly than all the memos sent down from personnel. I wonder how the sceptics respond to this.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School

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