Performance Appraisal Process: Can it be Fair?

by Patricia Lotich on January 6, 2011

I got this question from a TSB reader so I thought it might be a good opportunity to explain performance management and fairness in performance appraisals. The question was:

“Interested to know whether you think that appraisals can ever be ‘fair’. And if they can be, how can we measure them to ensure that they are. The reason I ask is because there is so much employee-supported legislation around today, fairness and equality are so essential to get right.  Thanks”

Great question!  The short answer is yes, performance appraisals can be fair and written and presented in such a way that there are no worries about legalities with equity and fairness.The long answer is that performance appraisals are as fair as the criteria and measurements used to base the assessments on.  It is all about making unbiased assessments of employees and having data to support those assessments. The only way to be objective when evaluating an employee’s performance is to support evaluations with very specific criteria.  This is why it is so important to tie performance appraisals to employee goals.  If  goals are written at the beginning of the performance period and if there is ongoing communication with the employee about their performance, then performance appraisals can be straightforward with a painless delivery.

Writing and delivering performance appraisals should be done through a multi-step process.

Employee goals should be written to support departmental goals which ultimately support organizational goals and strategy. Employee goals should be written to include specific and measurable objectives. These measures are what supply most of the data used in the performance appraisal process.

The performance appraisal should reflect the employee’s job description and goals. Job descriptions should be reviewed annually to ensure that they align with employee goals.  This exercise also keeps employees focused on tasks that support corporate objectives and eliminates unnecessary job duties.

Questions asked on the appraisal should be tied to stated measurable goals.  This makes this part of the assessment easy in that the employee either accomplished their goals or they didn’t.  If they did, it should be reflected in the PA and if they didn’t, it should be noted also.

Now having said all that, there are some questions on performance appraisals that are written to determine the “how” employees perform their tasks and can be very subjective.  Questions like, “employee demonstrations passion and enthusiasm for the job and company”. This is a very subjective observation and managers should be noting observed employee behaviors throughout the performance period.  They should keep a journal or file on each employee and every time a problem is noticed with the employee’s performance, the manager should mention the problem to the employee, make a note of the problem and drop it in their file. On the other hand, when an employee demonstrates desired behaviors, the employee should be told, it should be noted and dropped in the employee’s file. Collecting this kind of data helps supply the needed information to have an objective performance appraisal.

When the time comes to write the actual performance appraisal, all of this data should be gathered, studied and assessments made. Managers should also be taught and understand common rater errors and use another objective leader (ie: the manager’s boss) to help them ensure their observations are objective, data driven and not biased.

This kind of data gathering is the best defense against perceived appraisal biases.  Organizations get in trouble when:

  • Managers do not set specific measurable goals for employees.
  • Performance appraisals are not tied to stated expectations.
  • Managers don’t make noted observations throughout the performance period.
  • There is no data to support observations.
  • Managers do not confront employee problems when they happen but only bring it up at performance appraisal time.
  • There are biases in how managers track employee performance.  For example, a manager keeps a file on a “problem” employee but not all employees.
  • Managers do not talk to their employees except at performance appraisal time.

Finally, performance appraisals can be fair and effective if the process is structured, managed on a day-to-day basis and part of a larger performance management system.

If you are interested in learning more about managing employee performance, check out our new on-line Employee Performance Management class.  This is an inexpensive way to train you or your managers and we offer a money back guarantee so you have nothing to lose.  Use coupon code smart20 to get 20% off.  Click here to learn more!  

photo by buglug

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Spiers January 8, 2011 at 10:18 am

Good outline of the thought process and logic for a PA but you stopped short of how to make the PA program less threatening and a tool for interactive engagement. The employee should be part of defining and setting objectives within the business goals and strategies. Equally important are personal employee career goals and objectives which might include training, academics, outside volunteer work or work/life enrichment of some sort. A long range PA program might be termed an Employee Career Plan with not only annual reviews and adjustments but subjects for regular interaction and mutual engagement. Employee and manager need to work together for mutual growth and success.

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admin January 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Great points! Yes of course employees should be engaged in the process the entire way. Employee buy-in is often dependent on their involvement in the process. Thanks for the comment!

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