Is the appraisal an HR tool of the past?

Everyone is ditching appraisals, but Vicky Roberts asks could training fix them?

It seems as though everybody – from Accenture and Deloitte to Microsoft, Google and Facebook – is now unanimous that the annual performance appraisal is an HR tool of the past, and that it is time to replace it with continuous performance management.

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Certainly the concept of an annual review of performance has its flaws, and the oft-cited reason is that “nobody likes surprises”. This is true, issues should of course be dealt with as they arise, not saved as a bombshell for the annual appraisal. To borrow terminology from the world of educational assessment, performance management should be formative rather than summative.

So is that the reason why people are talking about ditching appraisals? Because they are too busy dealing with surprises?

I believe there are actually many reasons why the appraisal is still a powerful and important process both for employers and employees, and that the key to unlocking its potential lies in training.

Values to behaviours

The first quick fix that can be made to any ailing appraisal process is to make everything more measurable. It is very difficult to appraise how well an employee is living up to the organisation’s vision and values, and it can be quite a challenge to expect line managers to do this.

But if they are trained instead to translate these values into something more tangible, i.e. behaviours, they will then be able to measure demonstrably how an individual is performing by the presence or absence of those behaviours. For example, the value of “customer focus” can be nebulous when applying it to an individual, but when that individual’s manager is trained to define desired behaviours that demonstrate it, then targets become clearer.

Formative over summative

Ongoing performance management is of course preferable to a solely annual event – but in reality the two should go hand in hand. Managers should be trained so that performance becomes part of the everyday conversation.

Once it becomes an ongoing conversation then the annual appraisal becomes an exercise of picking up all of the already familiar various threads and looking at “what we’re going to do with them.”


Another clichéd criticism of appraisals is that they are backward-facing and not future-facing. But if we use the model described above, we solve this problem. The feedback has already been out in the open, and the appraisal becomes a matter of looking at future actions rather than discussions we have already had.

The manager as development tool

It might be time to think about what questions appraisal forms ask, and what questions they should be asking. In light of the above recommendations, does the appraisal even need to ask “how do you feel you have performed in the past year” if that’s already been discussed through feedback?

Instead of asking this question, perhaps the appraisal would be of more value if it asked “what was the most powerful piece of feedback you received from your manager in the last year, why and what are you doing with it?”

Questions like this also shine a light on the manager, because if they know that question is included then they will have the incentive to ensure they give the best possible feedback.

Training required

I do not believe that much additional training is necessarily required in order for managers to develop the competencies and tactics to get the most from appraisals. The skills and principles are already there in most management development programmes – it is just a case of how to put them into practice.

L&D professionals can therefore hold the key to vastly improving the appraisals and performance management process without a great deal of extra investment. By embedding and refreshing skills that they will already be covering, it is simply a matter of making them relevant to this particular process and bringing them to life.

With a few adjustments, it is the L&D department that can make the appraisals process as powerful and effective as it has always been intended to be.

All the arguments about getting rid of appraisals are predicated on managers giving ongoing formative feedback instead of, rather than as well as, the annual review. L&D is therefore also central to achieving a post-appraisal world but without appraisals, where is managers’ motivation, incentive or structure in which to give this formative feedback? Managers need to be equipped with both the skills and a methodology in which to use them; effective performance management and employee development will be far easier with an annual appraisal system in place as the vehicle through which the on-going formative feedback is acted upon.


About the author

Vicky Roberts, head of V-Learning at Vista


Training Journal

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