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Performance reviews provide an opportunity for employers to monitor and engage with their workers. Employees feel more valued and experience increased satisfaction where they are given the opportunity to engage and helps stimulate increases in productivity and indentify any issues before they become problems. Appraisals and reviews are a valuable part of an HR department’s toolkit for monitoring their own performance in managing the human elements of the enterprise.
In many cases performance reviews can be a missed opportunity to gain a greater understanding of a workforce as a whole. Whilst engaging with individuals has significant value monitoring teams, departments and divisions also has value. So when designing reviews it is important to consider what could be learnt. The review process and questions must be designed carefully to maintain a personal interaction as well as serving the corporate need for knowledge and direction.
The most challenging aspect of appraisal form design is devising the questions that should be asked. There should be a clearly define purpose for asking a question. It is not enough to create a list of questions that simply sound intelligent and appropriate, there must be a goal in acquiring the answers to these questions. An approach that can aid the design of questions is to consider the expected answer and how that might be analysed. Questions that encourage long and possibly rambling answers are difficult to analyse later. As the answers received will not have a common structure it is not easy and may not be possible to identify common themes or appropriate actions to take in response to those answers.
On the other side questions that can only be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response can be too rigid to capture the strength of feeling. A benefit of this type of structured answer is that it becomes trivial to assess how many answered one way or the other; you can discover out if something is or is not the case.
The middle ground is to use a Likert scale(strongly disagree, disagree, undecided, agree, strongly agree) to capture a structured response. As with the Boolean yes/no answers it is still possible to analyse positive and negative responses by grouping the relevant portion of the scale. The advantage is that it is possible to drill down into the data and assess the true strength of feeling by analysing the number of responses from the extreme ends of the scale. In turn this allows a prioritisation of response to issues that caused the greatest strength of feeling.
A combination of a Likert scale with a free text response can be used to allow an employee to express the details of their opinion whilst also capturing a structured response that is good for analysis. A sampling of the free text responses may help guide an understanding to why there is a particular strength of feeling or apathy in relation to a question.
Broadly speaking questions can be split into two high level categories. Those that apply to the organisation and those that apply to the individual. These have quite different purposes and one approach may be to ask them separately. By separating the questions an appraiser is then able to focus on the individual whilst the employee is able to give feedback on the organisation without fear of offending the appraiser. Ideally sections relating to an organisation or the general working environment should be submitted anonymously to encourage honest responses. To this end the entire review process should be designed around encouraging honest answers from staff members; honest answers carry the highest value even if they may not correlate with the most desirable answers for a organisation.
Questions related to an individual should be designed with care. It is less likely that structured answers will be appropriate where a personal response is desirable. This is partly because of the personal nature of the question but also because the worker may avoid giving a detailed response if they feel they answering ‘Agree’ is considered sufficient.
For personal questions to have value, it is important to consider who is going to be seen to care about the answer. If a worker takes the time to write a detailed explanation of an issue and a potential resolution then someone must read that text and be able to do something about it. If there is no mechanism for answers to be reviewed then there is little purpose in asking questions. An approach here is to manage the process of answering these questions in two steps. The employee first answers these questions in their own time before their appraiser reviews the answers (and possibly adds their own comments for review). The final step of this process is for both the worker and appraiser to meet and go through the responses together. This humanises the questions and answers, helps build a bond between co-workers and make the worker feel both that they are valued but also that the process is valuable.
The review process is a good opportunity to express corporate goals. These may come in various forms, derived from high-level strategic goals or team level targets. A review or appraisal is a perfect opportunity to express these goals which in turn helps create a cohesive and productive workforce all pulling in the right direction. As a review or appraisal is an interaction with an individual expressing these goals at this time helps impress on the individual that they have a stake and play a part in achieving these goals. The same goals expressed to a large group of people at once provide too much opportunity for the individual to believe that it is not down to them to act on their goals; that someone else will take responsibility for directing them.
As part of the review process, a worker should be encouraged to set their own goals and target for the future. When following this approach it is important to consider how well the worker will be able to manage this. Any goal must be achievable. If a worker sets themselves up to fail then the exercise is demoralising in the long term and erodes the relationship. Any goal must measurable. Again if the success or failure cannot be measured the outcome of that goal is a philosophical discussion and whilst that may lead to more general enlightenment that does exceed the typical mandate of a appraisal. A goal must also be positive. An example of a negative goal may be to pit one individual against another, ‘Sell more than Jean’ for example. This type of objective may suite the aggression of a competitive high-pressure sales team but the purpose of the review or an appraisal is to encourage the betterment of the worker; not to pit one colleague against another (which will harm cohesion and team work).
It is not enough to just collect a list of goals and then forget about them. At a personal and corporate or team level the progress towards each goal must be monitored. In some processes this is left till the next review which if an annual review will be too late. If the worker has not had to interact with or consider the goals they have set themselves (or the corporate goals) then it is down to chance that they have genuinely been working towards them. On reflection it will likely be possible that most workers will be able to find actions in the period since setting a goal that somehow contributed to the achievement of that goal. This is different from providing evidence of how they acted proactively to meet these challenges. To do this an ongoing record of planned or undertaken activities should be made during the period before the next review. It is then possible to see if any progress is deliberate or simply being conveniently attributed in retrospect.
The achievement of personal goals should be celebrated but there should be a separation between past goals and future goals. This prevents resting on laurels and encourages incremental improvement rather than a plateau of satisfactory abilities. Achieving the previous goal or excelling a target does not mean a worker should try less hard in the future so a process could consider a review of previous achievements a distinct activity from the current review.
Corporate or team goals should be celebrated by all those that contribute or at least communicated to all. This type of corporate update can detract from the intention of a personal interaction during a review so again handling these accomplishments outside the current review can help retain a focus on the future and personal interactions.
A review is a opportunity to a workers issues to be expressed to a manager. This should be encouraged as any issue is a barrier to productivity and will harm team cohesion. It may be worth considering who is involved in the review process to make sure that any issues are identified and acted on. In some cases a team leader may be able to deal with most of a review process unaided however only a more senior hand may have the authority or ability to enact meaningful change. Another consideration can be how to monitor any issues that exist between a reviewer and a worker. It may be appropriate that appointing a reviewer that is more senior than any direct co-worker is encourages communication that is more open.
The appraisal process should identify opportunities to develop team members and an effective route to achieve this is by training. By offering to help develop workers, an organisation encourages aspiration and a sense of direction. Developing individuals helps an organisation express how valuable a worker is to the whole. This strengthens identity and can help improve employee retention rates.
Capturing and managing training needs can become complex and challenging if not probably planned for. A reviewer should be restricted in some way as to what could be captured (anything that does not match should also be recorded). This may be providing broad headings of training category or a specific list of training that is available. The objective in capture these needs is to deliver some form of training solution; capturing the need where there is no facility to act on it may be demoralising and provide a negative experience for a worker.
The frequency of a review depends on a number of factors. The most important of these is the type of review and the content of the review. If the objectives captured in a review have the scope of a year there is little point in finding out if they have been completed within a month. In the same way a review containing a hundred questions cannot be presented weekly (reviews should contain a reasonable number of questions for their intended purpose).
If the review is the only opportunity for workers to pass feedback to seniors or be monitored on a personal level then a single annual review is unlikely to deliver the desired results. At the other end of the spectrum, if a manager is holding a weekly informal catch up with their team then an annual review may only serve the HR department. The organisational culture and ethos of the enterprise should guide the type and frequency of reviews. The understanding should be that the purpose of the review is build and manage a relationship with the individual worker; not create an annual process that could likened to a tax return.
The overall intention of a review or appraisal process should be to make workers feel that they are valued contributors to the organisation. This should be at the heart of any review process and for it to succeed it will require the support of all stakeholders. Designing a process that is lengthy and complex will likely alienate some quarters, particularly in high pressure or target driven areas. All participants should believe that there is value in what they have been asked to undertake. To that end it may sometimes be appropriate to consider if a blanket review or appraisal is appropriate to present to all departments. In areas where there is a flat structure with and existing frequent opportunities for one to ones it may be that this existing facility is a sufficient alternative to a top down blanket dictate.
Each organisation should have an understanding of its workers and what approaches will work best. If they do not then a review or appraisal is the ideal tool for discovering this. Remaining open to changes to the process or its presentation and being prepared to digest and manage the results of the review are the important factors.