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5 Common Traps to Avoid When Conducting Appraisals

Posted on 11/09/2014 by Jo Hodge


Annual performance appraisals can be an essential tool to maintaining success in 
not for profit organisations, but many employees view the appraisal process as a box-ticking exercise that never leads to real change and is only useful for inspiring Dilbert cartoons.

But if done correctly, appraisals can recognise, reward and promote excellent performance, establish baselines for employment decisions and provide notice to employees who need improvement or development.

Appraisals can only achieve this if done properly and poorly-conducted appraisals can do more damage to an organisation than not holding any at all.  Here are some common mistakes that managers make in the appraisal process and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Over-generous evaluations

Many top companies force managers to force-rank employees during appraisals, so only a set percentage of employees can ever receive the best performance rating.  While this may be too harsh for the not for profit sector, giving employees an over-generous evaluation can lead to a number of problems.  It’s easily done as managers usually want the best for their employees, but it can provide those staff members with a false sense of security and devalues above-average performance by others.  And if an employee is criticised or penalised for performance issues in the future, any discrepancy with their appraisal may give them a basis for legal action.

There are two key ways to avoid this.  When judging an employee’s performance, consider each criteria as average to start off with and then adjust up or down.  It is psychologically much easier to give an employee an accurate evaluation this way than grading down from a perfect score.  The other method is to judge an employee against their peers – is their performance stronger or weaker than average?  This will help make your best (and worst) employees stand out from the average majority.

2. Focussing on most recent performance

When preparing for an appraisal, the last few months will obviously be foremost in your mind.  But an effective annual appraisal must give equal weight to the full 12 months, or employees who have a burst of productivity right before an appraisal will have an unfair advantage over those who have produced consistent results over the year

Managers should also keep track of their employee’s performance over the year and bring up any variations between time periods.

3. Obsessing about quantifiable data

Managers often feel that in order to deliver objective evaluations, they have to stick to performance data that can be quantified, or counted.  However, objectivity simply means that opinions must be given without personal prejudice, not that opinions should be discounted in favour of figures.  After all, success in many roles is simply not quantifiable.  It’s always best to give solid examples of past performance to back up an evaluation, but they do not necessarily have to consist of countable units.

After all, the most important questions for an employee in an evaluation are things like: How am I doing?  Are you pleased with my work?  Is there a future for me within this organisation?  None of these questions have quantifiable answers.

4. Lack of focus on performance

A good appraisal is about only one thing; how well that employee has achieved their job goals.  Therefore, any discussion about timekeeping, attitude, dress etc should not be included in an appraisal discussion unless it directly affects an employee’s performance.

There is a natural human bias for managers to favour employees who think and act like themselves, which can give some staff an unfair advantage at appraisal time.  It is much more important to concentrate on whether an employee delivered the desired results than whether they followed the same process you would have done.

Sticking purely to results will also help to avoid inadvertent stereotyping, such as penalising employees who may appear less dedicated because they don’t stay late at night.

5. Treating appraisals as negotiations

Many appraisals are prefaced by both the manager and employee completing the same evaluation form.  This can have the unfortunate effect of making the appraisal into a negotiation as managers compromise in order to gain agreement from the employee.

While self-evaluation is a useful starting point, ultimately the appraisal is a formal record of your opinion, as the manager, on the quality of the employee’s work.  Employees should be asked for their opinions on any feedback they are given, but the objective of this is to ensure that they understand your perspective, not to ensure that they agree with it.

An effective performance appraisal process can be an extremely valuable tool for any organisation, but in many of them the process has overshadowed the effect.  Simply filling out forms and conducting interviews does not measure employee performance.  Make sure you are not sabotaging the effectiveness of your appraisals.

More advice on conducting appraisals is available from the CIPD.