Probably one of the most difficult tasks for Front Line leaders and managers is to conduct regular and worthwhile Performance Appraisals with individual employees. All too often these assessments do not cause a positive change in behaviour. This difficulty arises because of two conceptually different ways of viewing the feedback process.
The first is the traditional hierarchical method that is still often used. One of its major difficulties stems partly from human nature – people shy away from making critical judgments of other people’s performance. Why? For at least three reasons:
1. The way Front Line leaders and managers (early in their work career) were treated during their first Performance Appraisal reviews: “I went in raw and came out bleeding!”
2. Front Line leaders and managers lack of understanding and training in this area. Feedback is both a skill and an art.
3. Regardless of job title, until one reaches a professional level in their leadership competencies, providing feedback to employees will always be seen as uncomfortable. It does require a certain level of experience to discuss an employee’s performance while leaving the employee’s ‘personhood’ intact. For the inexperienced Front Line leader, determining the cost benefit for their return-on-preparation time will be difficult for some to fathom.
Precisely because of this lack of understanding, Front Line leaders frequently pull away from conducting Performance Appraisals. Positive Employee Relations means many things. But one aspect that is critical is regular and transparent feedback to and from employees about their job performance.
The second difficulty has to do with how the Performance Appraisal process is conceived of in the first place. It is rightly assumed that the onus for the feedback falls squarely on the shoulders of the Front Line leader. This is reinforced when the Front Line leader’s Performance Appraisal (Front Line leader with their next-level manager) contains a segment on how well the Front Line leader conducted reviews with his/her employee team. Though this may appear overwhelmingly to the Front Line leader we should not take this responsibility away from this or any other leader of people.
To this point in our discussion of Positive Employee Relations, we have emphasized that the Front Line leader and their employees need to be fully engaged in every aspect of their working relationship. The job responsibilities assigned to an employee – the Job Description and accompanying Performance Standards – are just one aspect of this relationship. What if we acted ‘outside the box’ and assigned employees the responsibility to initially assess their own performance – self-assessment?
If employees received their Job Descriptions and Performance Standards at the beginning of the review cycle, they would know the required outcomes 6 or 12 months in advance of the actual Performance Appraisal. There should be no surprises!
We have already given employees at least half of the tools to perform this self-assessment – the Job Description and Performance Standards. Consider conducting a brief session (10-15 minutes), during the Orientation phase, when a member of Human Resources instructs all newly-hired employees on how to review their own accomplishments, as well as those areas that require further development. This could be considered a mock pre-probationary Performance Appraisal. Once the employee knew what to expect in the Appraisal discussion, much of the fear, anxiety or resistance will begin to dissipate.
If the Positive Employee Relations culture has been established correctly, and embedded from day one, the employees will understand the importance of meeting their Performance Standards and will also understand that making an honest mistake (not carelessness) is one of the better learning tools. The Front Line leader needs to appreciate this point as well.
A further step would be, for Human resources, to conduct a 2-3 hour Workshop with employees (nearing completion of their probation period) on how they can factually and transparently assess their own achievements against the Performance Standards. To report back on having achieved, not achieved or exceeded the Performance Standards may be unusual, but not an impossible task, for most employees to undertake. Though this may be an awkward experience, when compared to the feedback methods used by most previous employers, talking about their accomplishments and skills that need to be upgraded will likely, as the process unfolds, be seen as a positive move. The Front Line leader will need to be coached on how to conduct the Performance Appraisal as well as providing positive recognition for the employees’ accomplishments.
The difficulty for the Front Line leader may be to create a safe environment for employees to discuss why they, for example, did not meet their Performance Standards. However, creating such a safe environment is, as we have previously argued, a major component of Positive Employee Relations. Also, the Front Line leader will need further training to assist the employee to see that performance levels recorded as ‘below standard’ are indicators of the need for further development – not the need for punitive action.
By exploring this second approach to employee feedback we place the Front Line leader, employee and the organization in a position to learn and explore new ways of thinking about credible and transparent feedback. This approach does not mean that the Front Line leader’s or next-level manager’s judgment and observations have no role in the process. It does mean that the emphasis changes from the Front Line leader’s unilateral decision about the employee’s performance to the employee taking the first steps in a participative process. In such a process, qualitative and quantitative data is generally not in dispute – it’s usually methodology that is the stumbling block.
As the employee’s direct involvement in their Performance Appraisal becomes the norm, we can also emphasise the importance of self-responsibility and self-accountability
Why Performance Appraisal is Important
Let’s step back for a moment and look at the many ways a positive and progressive Performance Appraisal can benefit your organization. The following seven points are specific to Positive Employee Relations and are not influenced by any particular industry or the products/services it provides.
1. It lets the employee know where he/she stands in relation to what is expected from their job (accomplishments vs Performance Standards).
2. It identifies the employee’s performance strengths and areas that need improvement so that the Front Line leader and the employee can then work together to improve performance and/or behaviour.
3. It reinforces the message that the only way to truly change employee attitudes and behaviours rests squarely on the shoulders of the employee.
4. It provides information for the Front Line leader and the employee to discuss and determine what is required to support the employee’s learning of new concepts and methods that will allow him/her to increase their accomplishments.
5. It provides information for making salary decisions, since salary in a union-free workplace normally related to performance.
6. It provides manpower and succession planning information by identifying the organization’s spread and depth of human resources.
7. It identifies the unique training and development requirements for the 2% - 4% of the employee population who are outstanding performers and have the potential to move up the organization.
A Performance Appraisal could be a tool for motivating employees, but in far too many cases it appears to do the opposite. In fact, there is sufficient research that if Performance Appraisals are conducted in the traditional fashion (Front Line leader telling the employee the results) that the process offers little in the way of positive motivation. Evidence continues to support the view that we cannot directly motivate anyone. However, what we can do is to create a workplace environment -eliminating or noticeably reducing the (negative)Hygiene Factors. Then employees will be engaged enough to motivate themselves because their career and personal needs are being both challenged and met while performing their work.
How we conceptualize the purpose of a Performance Appraisal and administer the process will have a lot to do with creating, or not creating, an environment for self-motivation.