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The history of performance appraisal is quite brief. Its roots in the early 20th century can be traced to Taylor's pioneering Time and Motion studies. But this is not very helpful, for the same may be said about almost everything in the field of modern human resources management.
As a distinct and formal management procedure used in the evaluation of work performance, appraisal really dates from the time of the Second World War - not more than 60 years ago. Yet in a broader sense, the practice of appraisal is a very ancient art. In the scale of things historical, it might well lay claim to being the world's second oldest profession!
There is, says Dulewicz (1989), "... a basic human tendency to make judgements about those one is working with, as well as about oneself." Appraisal, it seems, is both inevitable and universal. In the absence of a carefully structured system of appraisal, people will tend to judge the work performance of others, including subordinates, naturally, informally and arbitrarily.
The human inclination to judge can create serious motivational, ethical and legal problems in the workplace. Without a structured appraisal system, there is little chance of ensuring that the judgements made will be lawful, fair, defensible and accurate.
Performance appraisal systems began as simple methods of income justification. That is, appraisal was used to decide whether or not the salary or wage of an individual employee was justified. The process was firmly linked to material outcomes. If an employee's performance was found to be less than ideal, a cut in pay would follow. On the other hand, if their performance was better than the supervisor expected, a pay rise was in order. Little consideration, if any, was given to the developmental possibilities of appraisal. It was felt that a cut in pay, or a rise, should provide the only required impetus for an employee to either improve or continue to perform well.
Sometimes this basic system succeeded in getting the results that were intended; but more often than not, it failed. For example, early motivational researchers were aware that different people with roughly equal work abilities could be paid the same amount of money and yet have quite different levels of motivation and performance.
These observations were confirmed in empirical studies. Pay rates were important, yes; but they were not the only element that had an impact on employee performance. It was found that other issues, such as morale and self-esteem, could also have a major influence. As a result, the traditional emphasis on reward outcomes was progressively rejected. In the 1950s in the United States, the potential usefulness of appraisal as tool for motivation and development was gradually recognised. The general model of performance appraisal, as it is known today, began from that time.
Performance appraisal may be defined as a structured formal interaction between a subordinate and supervisor, that usually takes the form of a periodic interview (annual or semi-annual), in which the work performance of the subordinate is examined and discussed, with a view to identifying weaknesses and strengths as well as opportunities for improvement and skills development. That is, the appraisal results are used to identify the better performing employees who should get the majority of available merit pay increases, bonuses, and promotions.
By the same token, appraisal results are used to identify the poorer performers who may require some form of counselling, or in extreme cases, demotion, dismissal or decreases in pay. (Organisations need to be aware of laws in their country that might restrict their capacity to dismiss employees or decrease pay.) Whether this is an appropriate use of performance appraisal - the assignment and justification of rewards and penalties - is a very uncertain and contentious matter.
Controversy, Controversy: Few issues in management stir up more controversy than performance appraisal. There are many reputable sources - researchers, management commentators, psychometricians - who have expressed doubts about the validity and reliability of the performance appraisal process. Some have even suggested that the process is so inherently flawed that it may be impossible to perfect it (see Derven, 1990, for example). At the other extreme, there are many strong advocates of performance appraisal. Some view it as potentially "... the most crucial aspect of organisational life" (Lawrie, 1990).
Between these two extremes lie various schools of belief. While all endorse the use of performance appraisal, there are many different opinions on how and when to apply it. There are those, for instance, who believe that performance appraisal has many important employee development uses, but scorn any attempt to link the process to reward outcomes - such as pay rises and promotions. This group believes that the linkage to reward outcomes reduces or eliminates the developmental value of appraisals. Rather than an opportunity for constructive review and encouragement, the reward-linked process is perceived as judgmental, punitive and harrowing.
For example, how many people would gladly admit their work problems if, at the same time, they knew that their next pay rise or a much-wanted promotion was riding on an appraisal result? Very likely, in that situation, many people would deny or downplay their weaknesses. Nor is the desire to distort or deny the truth confined to the person being appraised. Many appraisers feel uncomfortable with the combined role of judge and executioner.
Such reluctance is not difficult to understand. Appraisers often know their appraisees well, and are typically in a direct subordinate-supervisor relationship. They work together on a daily basis and may, at times, mix socially. Suggesting that a subordinate needs to brush up on certain work skills is one thing; giving an appraisal result that has the direct effect of negating a promotion is another.
The result can be resentment and serious morale damage, leading to workplace disruption, soured relationships and productivity declines. On the other hand, there is a strong rival argument which claims that performance appraisal must unequivocally be linked to reward outcomes. The advocates of this approach say that organisations must have a process by which rewards - which are not an unlimited resource - may be openly and fairly distributed to those most deserving on the basis of merit, effort and results.
There is a critical need for remunerative justice in organisations. Performance appraisal - whatever its practical flaws - is the only process available to help achieve fair, decent and consistent reward outcomes.
It has also been claimed that the appraised themselves are inclined to believe that the appraisal results should be linked directly to reward outcomes - and are suspicious and disappointed when told this is not the case. Rather than feeling relieved, the appraised may suspect that they are not being told the whole truth, or that the appraisal process is a sham and waste of time.
The Link to Rewards:
Recent research (Bannister & Balkin, 1990) has reported that the appraised seem to have greater acceptance of the appraisal process, and feel more satisfied with it, when the process is directly linked to rewards. Such findings are a serious challenge to those who feel that appraisal results and reward outcomes must be strictly isolated from each other.
There is also a group who argue that the evaluation of employees for reward purposes, and frank communication with them about their performance, are part of the basic responsibilities of management. The practice of not discussing reward issues while appraising performance is, say critics, based on inconsistent and muddled ideas of motivation. In many organisations, this inconsistency is aggravated by the practice of having separate wage and salary reviews, in which merit rises and bonuses are decided arbitrarily, and often secretly, by supervisors and managers.
Effective performance appraisal systems contain two basic systems operating in conjunction: an evaluation system and a feedback system.
The main aim of the evaluation system is to identify the performance gap (if any). This gap is the shortfall that occurs when performance does not meet the standard set by the organisation as acceptable. The main aim of the feedback system is to inform the employee about the quality of his or her performance. (However, the information flow is not exclusively one way. The appraisers also receives feedback from the employee about job problems, etc.)
One of the best ways to appreciate the purposes of performance appraisal is to look at it from the different viewpoints of the main stakeholders: the employee and the organisation.
From the employee viewpoint, the purpose of performance appraisal is four-fold:
Tell me what you want me to do.
Tell me how well I have done it.
Help me improve my performance
Reward me for doing well.(from Cash, 1993)
From the organisation's viewpoint, one of the most important reasons for having a system of performance appraisal is to establish and uphold the principle of accountability. For decades it has been known to researchers that one of the chief causes of organisational failure is "non-alignment of responsibility and accountability." Non-alignment occurs where employees are given responsibilities and duties, but are not held accountable for the way in which those responsibilities and duties are performed. What typically happens is that several individuals or work units appear to have overlapping roles.
The overlap allows - indeed actively encourages - each individual or business unit to "pass the buck" to the others. Ultimately, in the severely non-aligned system, no one is accountable for anything. In this event, the principle of accountability breaks down completely. Organisational failure is the only possible outcome.
In cases where the non-alignment is not so severe, the organisation may continue to function, albeit inefficiently. Like a poorly made or badly tuned engine, the non-aligned organisation may run, but it will be sluggish, costly and unreliable. One of the principal aims of performance appraisal is to make people accountable. The objective is to align responsibility and accountability at every organisational level.
Techniques in Performance Appraisal
In a landmark study, Locher & Teel (1977) found that the three most common appraisal methods in general use are rating scales (56%), essay methods (25%) and results- oriented or MBO methods (13%). Certain techniques in performance appraisal have been thoroughly investigated, and some have been found to yield better results than others.
Research studies show that employees are likely to feel more satisfied with their appraisal result if they have the chance to talk freely and discuss their performance. It is also more likely that such employees will be better able to meet future performance goals. (e.g., Nemeroff & Wexley, 1979).
Employees are also more likely to feel that the appraisal process is fair if they are given a chance to talk about their performance. This especially so when they are permitted to challenge and appeal against their evaluation. (Greenberg, 1986).
It is very important that employees recognise that negative appraisal feedback is provided with a constructive intention, i.e., to help them overcome present difficulties and to improve their future performance. Employees will be less anxious about criticism, and more likely to find it useful, when the believe that the appraiser's intentions are helpful and constructive. (Fedor et al., 1989)
In contrast, other studies (e.g., Baron, 1988) have reported that "destructive criticism" - which is vague, ill-informed, unfair or harshly presented - will lead to problems such as anger, resentment, tension and workplace conflict, as well as increased resistance to improvement, denial of problems, and poorer performance.
Set Performance Goals:
It has been shown in numerous studies that goal-setting is an important element in employee motivation. Goals can stimulate employee effort, focus attention, increase persistence, and encourage employees to find new and better ways to work. (e.g., Locke, et al., 1981)
The usefulness of goals as a stimulus to human motivation is one of the best supported theories in management. It is also quite clear that goals which are "...specific, difficult and accepted by employees will lead to higher levels of performance than easy, vague goals (such as do your best) or no goals at all." (Harris & DiSimone, 1994)
It is important that the appraiser (usually the employee's supervisor) be well-informed and credible. Appraisers should feel comfortable with the techniques of appraisal, and should be knowledgeable about the employee's job and performance.
When these conditions exist, employees are more likely to view the appraisal process as accurate and fair. They also express more acceptance of the appraiser's feedback and a greater willingness to change. (Bannister, 1986)
This includes various well-known problems of selective perception (such as the horns and halos effect) as well as problems of perceived meaning. Selective perception is the human tendency to make private and highly subjective assessments of what a person is "really like", and then seek evidence to support that view (while ignoring or downplaying evidence that might contradict it). This is a common and normal psychological phenomenon. All human beings are affected by it. In other words, we see in others what we want to see in them.
An example is the supervisor who believes that an employee is inherently good (halo effect) and so ignores evidence that might suggest otherwise. Instead of correcting the slackening employee, the supervisor covers for them and may even offer excuses for their declining performance.
On the other hand, a supervisor may have formed the impression that an employee is bad (horns effect). The supervisor becomes unreasonably harsh in their assessment of the employee, and is always ready to criticise and undermine them.
The horns and halo effect is rarely seen in its extreme and obvious forms. But in its more subtle manifestations, it can be a significant threat to the effectiveness and credibility of performance appraisal.
Problems of perceived meaning occur when appraisers do not share the same opinion about the meaning of the selected traits and the language used on the rating scales. For example, to one appraiser, an employee may demonstrate the trait of initiative by reporting work problems to a supervisor. To another appraiser, this might suggest an excessive dependence on supervisory assistance - and thus a lack of initiative. In the same way, the language and terms used to construct a scale - such as "Performance exceeds expectations" or "Below average skill" - may mean different things to different appraisers.
The problem here is not so much errors in perception as errors in appraiser judgement and motive. Unlike perceptual errors, these errors may be (at times) deliberate.
The most common rating error is central tendency. Busy appraisers, or those wary of confrontations and repercussions, may be tempted to dole out too many passive, middle-of-the-road ratings (e.g., "satisfactory" or "adequate"), regardless of the actual performance of a subordinate. Thus the spread of ratings tends to clump excessively around the middle of the scale.
This problem is worsened in organisations where the appraisal process does not enjoy strong management support, or where the appraisers do not feel confident with the task of appraisal.
The rating scale method offers a high degree of structure for appraisals. Each employee trait or characteristic is rated on a bipolar scale that usually has several points ranging from "poor" to "excellent" (or some similar arrangement).
The traits assessed on these scales include employee attributes such as co-operation, communications ability, initiative, punctuality and technical (work skills) competence. The nature and scope of the traits selected for inclusion is limited only by the imagination of the scale's designer, or by the organisation's need to know.
The one major provision in selecting traits is that they should be in some way relevant to the appraisee's job. The traits selected by some organisations have been unwise and have resulted in legal action on the grounds of discrimination.
The greatest advantage of rating scales is that they are structured and standardised. This allows ratings to be easily compared and contrasted - even for entire workforces.
Each employee is subjected to the same basic appraisal process and rating criteria, with the same range of responses. This encourages equality in treatment for all appraisees and imposes standard measures of performance across all parts of the organisation.
Rating scale methods are easy to use and understand. The concept of the rating scale makes obvious sense; both appraisers and appraisees have an intuitive appreciation for the simple and efficient logic of the bipolar scale. The result is widespread acceptance and popularity for this approach.
Trait Relevance: Are the selected rating-scale traits clearly relevant to the jobs of all the appraisees? It is inevitable that with a standardised and fixed system of appraisal that certain traits will have a greater relevance in some jobs than in others.
For example, the trait "initiative" might not be very important in a job that is tightly defined and rigidly structured. In such cases, a low appraisal rating for initiative may not mean that an employee lacks initiative. Rather, it may reflect that fact that an employee has few opportunities to use and display that particular trait. The relevance of rating scales is therefore said to be context-sensitive. Job and workplace circumstances must be taken into account.
Systemic Disadvantage: Rating scales, and the traits they purport to measure, generally attempt to encapsulate all the relevant indicators of employee performance. There is an assumption that all the true and best indicators of performance are included, and all false and irrelevant indicators are excluded.
This is an assumption very difficult to prove in practice. It is possible that an employee's performance may depend on factors that have not been included in the selected traits. Such employees may end up with ratings that do not truly or fairly reflect their effort or value to the organisation. Employees in this class are systemically disadvantaged by the rating scale method.
In the essay method approach, the appraiser prepares a written statement about the employee being appraised. The statement usually concentrates on describing specific strengths and weaknesses in job performance. It also suggests courses of action to remedy the identified problem areas. The statement may be written and edited by the appraiser alone, or it be composed in collaboration with the appraisee.
The essay method is far less structured and confining than the rating scale method. It permits the appraiser to examine almost any relevant issue or attribute of performance. This contrasts sharply with methods where the appraisal criteria are rigidly defined. Appraisers may place whatever degree of emphasis on issues or attributes that they feel appropriate. Thus the process is open-ended and very flexible. The appraiser is not locked into an appraisal system the limits expression or assumes that employee traits can be neatly dissected and scaled.
Essay methods are time-consuming and difficult to administer. Appraisers often find the essay technique more demanding than methods such as rating scales. The technique's greatest advantage - freedom of expression - is also its greatest handicap. The varying writing skills of appraisers can upset and distort the whole process. The process is subjective and, in consequence, it is difficult to compare and contrast the results of individuals or to draw any broad conclusions about organisational needs.
Results Method (MBO Method)
The use of management objectives was first widely advocated in the 1950s by the noted management theorist Peter Drucker.
MBO (management by objectives) methods of performance appraisal are results-oriented. That is, they seek to measure employee performance by examining the extent to which predetermined work objectives have been met.
Usually the objectives are established jointly by the supervisor and subordinate. An example of an objective for a sales manager might be: Increase the gross monthly sales volume to $250,000 by 30 June. Once an objective is agreed, the employee is usually expected to self-audit; that is, to identify the skills needed to achieve the objective. Typically they do not rely on others to locate and specify their strengths and weaknesses. They are expected to monitor their own development and progress.
The MBO approach overcomes some of the problems that arise as a result of assuming that the employee traits needed for job success can be reliably identified and measured. Instead of assuming traits, the MBO method concentrates on actual outcomes. If the employee meets or exceeds the set objectives, then he or she has demonstrated an acceptable level of job performance. Employees are judged according to real outcomes, and not on their potential for success, or on someone's subjective opinion of their abilities.
MBO methods of performance appraisal can give employees a satisfying sense of autonomy and achievement. But on the downside, they can lead to unrealistic expectations about what can and cannot be reasonably accomplished.
Supervisors and subordinates must have very good "reality checking" skills to use MBO appraisal methods. They will need these skills during the initial stage of objective setting, and for the purposes of self-auditing and self-monitoring.
Unfortunately, research studies have shown repeatedly that human beings tend to lack the skills needed to do their own "reality checking". Nor are these skills easily conveyed by training. Reality itself is an intensely personal experience, prone to all forms of perceptual bias.
One of the strengths of the MBO method is the clarity of purpose that flows from a set of well-articulated objectives. But this can be a source of weakness also. It has become very apparent that the modern organisation must be flexible to survive. Objectives, by their very nature, tend to impose a certain rigidity.
Of course, the obvious answer is to make the objectives more fluid and yielding. But the penalty for fluidity is loss of clarity. Variable objectives may cause employee confusion. It is also possible that fluid objectives may be distorted to disguise or justify failures in performance.
Benefits of Appraisal
Perhaps the most significant benefit of appraisal is that, in the rush and bustle of daily working life, it offers a rare chance for a supervisor and subordinate to have "time out" for a one-on-one discussion of important work issues that might not otherwise be addressed. Almost universally, where performance appraisal is conducted properly, both supervisors and subordinates have reported the experience as beneficial and positive.
Appraisal offers a valuable opportunity to focus on work activities and goals, to identify and correct existing problems, and to encourage better future performance. Thus the performance of the whole organisation is enhanced. For many employees, an "official" appraisal interview may be the only time they get to have exclusive, uninterrupted access to their supervisor. Said one employee of a large organisation after his first formal performance appraisal, "In twenty years of work, that's the first time anyone has ever bothered to sit down and tell me how I'm doing." The value of this intense and purposeful interaction between a supervisors and subordinate should not be underestimated.
Motivation and Satisfaction:
Performance appraisal can have a profound effect on levels of employee motivation and satisfaction - for better as well as for worse.
Performance appraisal provides employees with recognition for their work efforts. The power of social recognition as an incentive has been long noted. In fact, there is evidence that human beings will even prefer negative recognition in preference to no recognition at all.
If nothing else, the existence of an appraisal program indicates to an employee that the organisation is genuinely interested in their individual performance and development. This alone can have a positive influence on the individual's sense of worth, commitment and belonging.
The strength and prevalence of this natural human desire for individual recognition should not be overlooked. Absenteeism and turnover rates in some organisations might be greatly reduced if more attention were paid to it. Regular performance appraisal, at least, is a good start.
Training and Development:
Performance appraisal offers an excellent opportunity - perhaps the best that will ever occur - for a supervisor and subordinate to recognise and agree upon individual training and development needs.
During the discussion of an employee's work performance, the presence or absence of work skills can become very obvious - even to those who habitually reject the idea of training for them!
Performance appraisal can make the need for training more pressing and relevant by linking it clearly to performance outcomes and future career aspirations.
From the point of view of the organisation as a whole, consolidated appraisal data can form a picture of the overall demand for training. This data may be analysed by variables such as sex, department, etc. In this respect, performance appraisal can provide a regular and efficient training needs audit for the entire organisation.
Recruitment and Induction:
Appraisal data can be used to monitor the success of the organisation's recruitment and induction practices. For example, how well are the employees performing who were hired in the past two years?
Appraisal data can also be used to monitor the effectiveness of changes in recruitment strategies. By following the yearly data related to new hires (and given sufficient numbers on which to base the analysis) it is possible to assess whether the general quality of the workforce is improving, staying steady, or declining.
Though often understated or even denied, evaluation is a legitimate and major objective of performance appraisal. But the need to evaluate (i.e., to judge) is also an ongoing source of tension, since evaluative and developmental priorities appear to frequently clash. Yet at its most basic level, performance appraisal is the process of examining and evaluating the performance of an individual.
Though organisations have a clear right - some would say a duty - to conduct such evaluations of performance, many still recoil from the idea. To them, the explicit process of judgement can be dehumanising and demoralising and a source of anxiety and distress to employees.
It is been said by some that appraisal cannot serve the needs of evaluation and development at the same time; it must be one or the other. But there may be an acceptable middle ground, where the need to evaluate employees objectively, and the need to encourage and develop them, can be balanced.
Some interesting insights into what can go seriously wrong in a system of reward-linked performance appraisal is found in the work of Deets & Tyler (1986).
The Xerox Experience
The Reprographic Business Group of the Xerox Corporation operated a very traditional system of performance appraisal based on rating scale methods. The rating outcomes were linked to pay outcomes. In fact, the results had direct effects on merit pay rises - everyone at Xerox knew that and expected it.
The Xerox system included all the common features of rating scale systems. The appraisal interviews were held annually and conducted by the employee's immediate supervisor.
Accomplishments of the preceding year were recorded and performance levels were judged according to various predefined criteria. The system included some elements of essay appraisal, since appraisers were required to write brief supporting statements for each rated criterion.
The Xerox system also called for a summary rating; an ultimate digit, from a low of 1 (for unsatisfactory) to a high of 5 (exceptional). The summary rating attempted to encapsulate the whole year's performance in a single number.
The significance of that final number was immense. It literally determined the size of the employee's annual pay rise. The higher the rating, the bigger the rise. For Xerox employees, the thing that really mattered about appraisal was getting the biggest possible final number.
Analysis of ratings over time showed that more than 95 percent of employees were either 3s, 4s or 5s; that is, the spread of ratings heavily favoured the higher end of the scale. Almost every employee, according to the appraisal system, was performing at or above the average. The lower end of the scale, the ratings of "below average" and "unsatisfactory" were very rarely used. The effect of this distortion was that any employee who scored less than a 4 ("exceeds expected performance level") began to feel like a failure!
The appraisal process became a sort of ratings lottery; the aim of the game was to get the highest possible score and win the jackpot. The process became fixated on that all-important final digit.
This situation placed tremendous pressure on those appraised and appraisers alike. The appraisers had the unenviable task of deciding the winners from the losers. No wonder most of them preferred to hand out an abundance of overly-generous ratings!
Xerox eventually replaced this system with an MBO/essay form of appraisal. They abandoned rating scale methods completely.
That may have been an over-reaction, since the fault did not lie with the method itself so much as with its intimate - and ultimately inflexible linkage - to the annual pay rise. When reward outcomes are so closely linked to the size of a rating on a five point scale, the difference of one point either way can become very important and provocative.
The Xerox rating system might have worked if the direct causal relationship between the summary rating and merit pay outcomes had been eliminated or at least softened.
The Case for Linkage
The question of whether appraisal results should be allowed to directly influence decisions about pay increases (and other reward outcomes such as promotion) has been hotly contested. It is still one of the most contentious issues in human resources management. One of the main reasons for separating appraisal results from reward decisions is the belief that a too-close link would create an overly-threatening and potentially punitive system. Employees, apprehensive at the prospect of being judged, would have the added anxiety of knowing that the result will directly impact their pay packet and career outcomes.
This kind of appraisal pressure results in a win/lose mentality of the sort that developed at Xerox. Rather than the appraisee being willing to openly discuss their performance, they become anxious and defensive. Naturally, the typical appraisee is not eager to admit to anything that might impair their chances of a pay rise or other reward.
There is a deep irony in the fact that many organisations, while having excellent systems of appraisal, allow their merit pay and promotion decisions to be made by inferior means. Often the matter is left to the discretion of one or two supervisors or managers, with a cursory review being made by the HR department.
There is also the work of Bannister & Balkin (1990), which has reported that "discussions of pay at the time of performance appraisal" increases employee acceptance of appraisal and their satisfaction with the process. This undermines the arguments for separation. As well, there is evidence that incongruity between appraisal results and later pay and promotion outcomes is a source of employee discontent and demotivation.
Pay increases and promotions send powerful messages to employees. If these messages don't match up with the appraisal results, employees are quick to dismiss the whole process as a farce. Efforts have been made to convince employees otherwise, but the "bottom line" for many is who got the extra money or who got the new job.
The separation of appraisal results and reward outcomes is, at best, a contrived situation. At worst, it may convey the impression that appraisal is some sort of deception, a trick by management, designed to give an appearance of openness and fairness while "real issues" like pay and promotions are decided in secret. Nor is the practice of putting a six-month buffer between appraisals and pay reviews an effective method of avoiding the issue. Far better to define and clarify the relationship between appraisal, performance and reward outcomes.
The view of the separatists, which insists that appraisal results and reward outcomes should be insulated from each other, may be an over- reaction to the potential abuses. There is evidence that appraisees appreciate the existence of a link between appraisal and reward results. To many, the existence of such a link is intuitively sensible.
From the perspective of the organisation, the inclusion of carefully collected appraisal data in pay and promotion matters may contribute to better quality decisions. It should also help ensure a greater degree of congruity between appraisal results and subsequent reward outcomes.
Even so, many advocates of separation will be reluctant to concede the possibility of any form of constructive linkage between appraisal and rewards. This is a shame, because the potential of performance appraisal encompasses more than employee development. Admittedly there are risks in linking reward outcomes; but there are also risks, and a potential for harm, in contriving to deny that any linkage exists. At the very least, an organisation wishing to form the mildest of reward links might consider a frank discussion of reward criteria during the appraisal interview.
Those organisations that are determined to keep their appraisal and reward issues separated might ask themselves whether performance appraisal is really the tool they need. Perhaps what they actually desire is some form of developmental appraisal.
Conflict and Confrontation
Invariably the needs arises during a performance appraisal to provide an employee with less than flattering feedback. The skill and sensitivity used to handle these often difficult sessions is critical. If the appraisee accepts the negative feedback and resolves to improve, all is well. But if the result is an angry or hurt employee, then the process of correction has failed. The performance of an employee in such cases is unlikely to improve and may deteriorate even further.
According to Krein (1990), appraisers should not confront employees directly with criticism. Rather, they should aim to let the evidence of poor performance emerge "naturally" during the course of the appraisal interview. This is done by way of open-ended questioning techniques that encourage the employee to identify their own performance problems.
Instead of blunt statements or accusations, the appraisers should encourage an employee to talk freely about their own impressions of their performance. For example, consider the case of employee who has had too many absent days. The appraiser, in accusatory mode, might say: "Your attendance record is unacceptable. You'll have to improve it."
A better way to handle this might be to say: "Your attendance record shows that you had 7 days off work in 6 months. What can you tell me about this?"
The technique is to calmly present the evidence (resisting the temptation to label it as good or bad) and then invite the employee to comment. In many cases, with just a gentle nudge from the appraiser here and there, an employee with problems will admit that weaknesses do exist. This is much more likely when an employee does not feel accused of anything, nor forced to make admissions that they do not wish to make.
If an appraiser can get an employee to the stage of voluntary admission, half the battle is won. The technique described by Krein is a type of self-auditing, since it encourages the employee to confront themselves with their own work and performance issues.
The technique is useful because it is more likely to promote discussion and agreement on the need for change. Confrontation techniques that rely on "charge and counter-charge" tend to promote adversarialism - and that leads to denial and resentment.
Ownership of Problems:
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the self- auditing process is that employees are more willing generally to accept personal "ownership" of problems that have been self-identified. This sense of ownership provides an effective basis for stimulating change and development. (Some would argue that it provides the only basis.)
Nevertheless there are individuals who will not admit to anything that appears to reflect poorly on them. With ego defences on full-alert, they will resist the process of self-auditing very strongly. In such cases, appraisers may have no choice but to confront the poor performer directly and firmly with the evidence they have.
Sometimes the shock of direct confrontation will result in the employee admitting that they do need to make improvements. But sometimes it will just make their denial of the problem worse.
In providing any feedback - especially negative feedback - appraisers should be willing and able to support their opinions with specific and clear examples. Vague generalisations should be avoided. The focus should be on job-related behaviours and attitudes. If a specific observation cannot be supported by clear evidence, or touches on issues that are not job-related, it may be best to exclude all mention of it. Appraisers must carefully scrutinise their own perceptions, motives and prejudice.
Where performance appraisal fails to work as well as it should, lack of support from the top levels of management is often cited as a major contributing reason. Opposition may be based on political motives, or more simply, on ignorance or disbelief in the effectiveness of the appraisal process. It is crucial that top management believe in the value of appraisal and express their visible commitment to it. Top managers are powerful role models for other managers and employees. Those attempting to introduce performance appraisal, or even to reform an existing system, must be acutely aware of the importance of political issues and symbolism in the success of such projects.
Fear of Failure:
There is a stubborn suspicion among many appraisers that a poor appraisal result tends to reflect badly upon them also, since they are usually the employee's supervisor. Many appraisers have a vested interest in making their subordinates "look good" on paper. When this problem exists (and it can be found in many organisations), it may point to a problem in the organisation culture. The cause may be a culture that is intolerant of failure. In other words, appraisers may fear the possibility of repercussions - both for themselves and the appraisee.
Longenecker (1989) argues that accuracy in performance appraisal is impossible to achieve, since people play social and political games, and they protect their own interests. "No savvy manager...", says Longenecker, "... is going to use the appraisal process to shoot himself or herself in the foot."
No matter what safeguards are in place, "... when you turn managers loose in the real world, they consciously fudge the numbers." What Longenecker is saying is that appraisers will, for all sorts of reasons, deliberately distort the evaluations that they give to employees. Indeed, surveys have shown that not only do many managers admit to a little fudging, they actually defend it as a tactic necessary for effective management.
The fudging motives of appraisers have, at times, a certain plausibility. For instance, a supervisor who has given an overly generous appraisal to a marginal performer might claim that their 'legitimate' motive was the hope of encouraging a better performance.
On the other hand, fudging motives can be a lot less admirable and sometimes devious: the appraiser who fudges to avoid the possibility of an unpleasant confrontation, the appraiser who fudges to hide employee difficulties from senior managers, the appraiser who fudges in order to punish or reward employees.
Many people have a natural reluctance to "play judge" and create a permanent record which may affect an employee's future career. This is the case especially where there may be a need to make negative appraisal remarks.
Training in the techniques of constructive evaluation (such as self-auditing) may help. Appraisers need to recognise that problems left unchecked could ultimately cause more harm to an employee's career than early detection and correction.
Organisations might consider the confidential archiving of appraisal records more than, say, three years old.
Larson (1989) has described a social game played by poor performers. Many supervisors will recognise the game at once and may have been its victims. The game is called feedback-seeking. It occurs where a poor performing employee regularly seeks informal praise from his or her supervisor at inappropriate moments.
Often the feedback-seeker will get the praise they want, since they choose the time and place to ask for it. In effect, they "ambush" the supervisor by seeking feedback at moments when the supervisor is unable or unprepared to give them a full and proper answer, or in settings that are inappropriate for a frank assessment.
The supervisor may feel "put on the spot", but will often provide a few encouraging words of support. The game seems innocent enough until appraisal time comes around. Then the supervisor will find that the employee recalls, with perfect clarity, every casual word of praise ever spoken!
This places the supervisor in a difficult bind. Either the supervisor lied when giving the praise, or least, misled the employee into thinking that their performance was acceptable (in fact, this is the argument that feedback-seekers will often make).
The aim of the game is that the feedback- seeker wants to deflect responsibility for their own poor performance. They also seek to bolster their appraisal rating by bringing in all the "evidence" of casual praise. Very often the feedback seeker will succeed in making the supervisor feel at least partly responsible. As a result, their appraisal result may be upgraded.
Was the supervisor partly responsible? Not really. The truth of the matter is that they have been "blackmailed" by a subtle social game. But like most social games, the play depends on the unconscious participation of both sides. Making supervisors aware of the game is usually sufficient to stop it. They must learn to say, when asked for casual praise, "I can't talk about it now... but see me in my office later." This puts the supervisor back in control of the appraisal process.
The bane of any performance appraisal system is the appraiser who wants to "play it by ear". Such attitudes should be actively discouraged by stressing the importance and technical challenge of good performance appraisal. Perhaps drawing their attention to the basics of performance appraisal may help them to see the critical issues that must be considered.
Employees should participate with their supervisors in the creation of their own performance goals and development plans. Mutual agreement is a key to success. A plan wherein the employee feels some degree of ownership is more likely to be accepted than one that is imposed. This does not mean that employees do not desire guidance from their supervisor; indeed they very much do.
One of the most common mistakes in the practice of performance appraisal is to perceive appraisal as an isolated event rather than an ongoing process.
Employees generally require more feedback, and more frequently, than can be provided in an annual appraisal. While it may not be necessary to conduct full appraisal sessions more than once or twice a year, performance management should be viewed as an ongoing process. Frequent mini-appraisals and feedback sessions will help ensure that employees receive the ongoing guidance, support and encouragement they need.
Of course many supervisors complain they don't have the time to provide this sort of ongoing feedback. This is hardly likely. What supervisors really mean when they say this is that the supervision and development of subordinates is not as high a priority as certain other tasks.
In this case, the organisation may need to review the priorities and values that it has instilled in its supervisory ranks. After all, supervisors who haven't got time to monitor and facilitate the performance of their subordinates are like chefs who haven't got time to cook, or dentists who are too busy to look at teeth. It just doesn't make sense.
If appraisal is viewed as an isolated event, it is only natural that supervisors will come to view their responsibilities in the same way. Just as worrying, employees may come to see their own effort and commitment levels as something that needs a bit of a polish up in the month or two preceding appraisals.