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How to conduct an employee performance appraisal

For many managers, conducting an effective and engaging performance review is considered one of the more challenging tasks on their annual calendar. But with the correct preparation and a positive mindset, you can make your appraisals productive, stimulating and a boost to your own management self-confidence. At the same time, a performance appraisal can engage and invigorate your staff, leaving them motivated to achieve their new objectives and refocused on their next career progression goal.

Performance reviews are an opportunity to:

  • Revive flagging motivation
  • Kick-start projects that may have fallen by the wayside
  • Reward productive employees with more responsibility
  • Deal with problems head-on
  • Set objectives for the future
  • Assess training needs
  • Learn more about the group dynamics of your team

Benefits to your staff

Believe it or not, many people actually look forward to their performance appraisal and the feedback that they receive.

The performance appraisal is a chance for the employee to:

  • Gain recognition and reward (although appraisals are most definitely not pay reviews - these should ideally be handled separately)
  • Look ahead and set objectives that will help their career
  • Identify support for you to provide 
  • Resolve grievances
  • Seek reassurance and appreciation

Staff appraisal preparation 

In order to make the appraisal session worthwhile, it's essential to prepare by reviewing past information and jotting down some notes. If you need to, review the employee’s job description and the objectives set in their last review, then think about their recent work and whether it has met these expectations. Also identify areas where they have excelled and gone above and beyond expectations, as well as areas for improvement.

To give you an insight into how your employee might slant the conversation in the meeting itself, it's useful to ask for some initial thoughts via an open-ended pre-appraisal form. Such self-assessment also gives staff the time to think honestly and accurately review their own performance.

The pre-appraisal form could ask employees to rate how well they’ve achieved their objectives, identify opportunities for improvement, assess their strengths and weaknesses and note any other issues they would like to raise in the appraisal meeting itself. The latter is important as it will give you a heads-up of any issues you might not otherwise have been aware of.

Things you can do to make the appraisal more beneficial include:

  • Ask your employee to complete the appraisal form in full
  • Explain you will need the form back at least two days prior to the meeting to give you time to review it
  • Spend quality time analysing the appraisee's comments
  • Review previous appraisal notes; what were the objectives set?
  • Review the notes you’ve kept about the employee’s performance since their last review period
  • Talk to other line managers and colleagues for their feedback on the appraisee’s performance
  • Talk to clients or suppliers for their feedback
  • Assess work completed and projects executed. Could they have been done better? What was done well?
  • Think about future departmental objectives - how can the appraisee contribute? How can you develop the appraisee to ensure they can help meet the required objectives?

In the appraisal

First and foremost, stick to the appointment. Whether your appraisee has been looking forward to the session with enthusiasm or trepidation, a postponement will cause disappointment. Show that you take your employee's career seriously and that the appraisal is important to you too. If other people want to see you, put them off. Set the meeting for first thing in the morning to avoid being waylaid by other demands on your time.

As a guideline, allow an hour for the appraisal and hold all calls.

Start the appraisal with an upbeat, positive tone and warm greeting. Let the appraisee know that the conversation should be two-way, with their constructive, open and honest feedback critical to being able to discuss their achievements.

Then set the agenda. Explain the importance of the appraisal and that the purpose is to focus on the appraisee. A gentle reminder that salary is not on the agenda is not out of place, but be sensitive to individual circumstances.

Try to follow a logical order, ideally along the lines of your pre-appraisal form. The discussion should centre around:

  • A review of objectives set at the previous appraisal
  • What objectives were met? Is the appraisee deserving of special praise?
  • What wasn't met? Why? Was extra help needed?
  • How much has the employee grown since the last review?
  • How does the appraisee view their role and contribution to the team?
  • Does the appraisee enjoy their job? What aspects do and don’t they enjoy?
  • How does the appraisee assess their skills? Do you agree? Is any upskilling required? Remember to consider soft skills as well as technical in this assessment.
  • Does the appraisee have a clear idea of their own role and the department's role and how these contribute to the organisation’s overall success?
  • What career progression plans does the appraisee have? How will these be achieved?
  • Where could their development take them within the organisation?
  • What specific targets can you set for the year ahead? Can the targets be realistically met?
  • How will performance be measured?
  • What training needs are required to fulfil these objectives?

Delivering home truths

Confrontations can arise when delivering uncomfortable news. You may be required to spell out in no uncertain terms that the appraisee is failing in a particular aspect of their job. This could be as simple a matter as timekeeping or personal appearance, or more sensitive, such as competence at specific tasks or ability to get on with colleagues.

Regardless of the issue you need to address, it’s important to be prepared. Decide in advance of the meeting how you can best phrase your comments. Can you at the same time highlight positive points? Are you being constructive in your criticism? What suggestions can you present to show how these issues can be resolved?

Handling confrontation

In many cases, performance appraisals can progress positively until you ask the appraisee if they have any other issues to raise. This can open a can of worms that you were unprepared for, such as personal gripes about other members of staff, complaints about office ergonomics, accusations of unfair treatment and grievances about workload or resources. Many of these issues may seem of little significance to you in the grand scheme of things, but to the appraisee they can be apportioned enormous importance.

Some of these problem areas can be shrewdly predicted. For example, perhaps colleagues can tip you off beforehand. If you suspect any potential gripes, ensure these are discussed at the appraisal, even if a little coaxing is required to bring them out. Some people would rather let moans and groans fester, but this only serves to lower the team’s morale. Instead, tackle them head on. Your proactive approach may even work in your favour. An employee who continually complains about an issue may be taken by surprise and take a less confrontational view if you raise the issue first.

However, if it is you who is on the back foot, taken unawares by some unforeseen problem, you’ll need to think quickly on your feet. Ask the appraisee to give you specific examples rather than generalisations. Asking for evidence is not unreasonable. Listen carefully. What is the problem really about? Is the problem being raised a cover for something less sinister that can be easily handled? Is the appraisee embarrassed about something?

Asking the appraisee to suggest how the problem could be resolved can also help to diffuse the situation. Rather than focusing on the problem, ask them to give the matter some thought and offer rational suggestions to overcome the problem. For example, if the issue is one of resourcing or ideas, perhaps the appraisee could be given a special project to scope out a solution.

Obviously, if the complaint is of a more serious nature, such as harassment or discrimination allegations, further investigation will be required. Make it clear you take the matter seriously and will take the appropriate steps immediately following the conclusion of the appraisal. Then return to the main appraisal and concentrate on positive points.

Offer takeaway objectives

Towards the end of the appraisal, you should have an open discussion with the appraisee in which you set objectives to work towards before the next review period. Even the most high-performing employee has things they need to improve, new skills to learn, additional targets to meet or new projects to run. So, set realistic objectives, each with a timeframe for completion, and align them to the organisation’s or department’s goals as well as the employee’s career progression plan.

Post-appraisal action

The appraisal isn't over when the meeting ends. Complete any documentation, write up your appraisal notes, including any actions that need to be taken to address issues raised, the objectives that were discussed and agreed to and the aspects of performance that have been done particularly well. It's usual practice to ask the appraisee to review and sign the notes and provide them with a copy to help keep them accountable for achieving the agreed objectives.

Then you need to make sure the action points are completed. If you have committed to exploring further training or arranging meetings with other departments, for example, set up these sessions as soon as you can. If your employee has had a positive appraisal and is freshly motivated, the worst thing you can do is fail to follow up and appear less wholeheartedly behind their career than you were in the meeting.

Knowing how to appraise staff will ensure you approach these meetings with the right mental attitude, effective preparation and a commitment to constructive follow-up. This allows you to turn your staff appraisals into positive, inspiring and performance-enhancing meetings that will produce a beneficial outcome for both you and your employee.

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