By Karen Waldock, Managing Partner at empire group“It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises but only performance is reality”- Harold S Geneen
The annual performance appraisal is coming up. For some partners and managers it might seem like it was only yesterday that you did the last one! This event is prone to striking fear into the hearts of even the most stellar of your performers, and for those conducting the review it can be equally as stressful, particularly if you have to give some negative or constructive feedback. And particularly if you have not turned your mind to staff performance since the last formal appraisal.
So often in our line of work we find candidates looking for a new job or even career after what they perceive to be an unfair performance review or unsatisfactory salary review – and of course the review or salary may be totally justified. However, the way these reviews are conducted can make the difference between losing a good employee, or one with potential, and keeping them. Of course giving regular feedback, good and bad, to your employees is the best approach – and there are many businesses which are opting out of the appraisal system all together, but the legal profession seems to be sticking to the tried and true method.
Make sure you know the important dates and have them diarised to ensure you complete your part of the appraisal on time. Your HR team will quietly adore you for it. Set aside some time to complete the appraisals without interruption and give honest thought to each of the questions, and to each of your staff, as individuals, and as part of your team.
Here at empire group, we strive to be the best at everything we do, and conducting our own staff appraisals is no different. How we conduct them makes an important statement about our culture to our own staff.
In an ideal world, all appraisals should be conducted on the ‘no surprises’ basis; that is, that the feedback you are giving is feedback that staff have already received along the way. Telling a staff member that a client made a complaint about something three months ago is unfair to your employee who may rightly feel ambushed. Giving this feedback in this way will derail an otherwise positive appraisal – and your employee will only be thinking about that one piece of feedback and nothing else.
It is important to remember that the performance appraisal is for performance over a period of time – usually 12 months, or six months. It is not the last 12 minutes, hours, days or even weeks. It is never a good idea to conduct a performance review the day after a staff member has made a mistake on a matter, or after you have had a disagreement – your judgement, and theirs, will be affected by that event. And that won’t be good for anyone. Think objectively about the person’s performance outside of that one event. On that note, if this is not your employee’s first appraisal with you, read the previous appraisal carefully to refresh your memory.
Common problems and what to do about them
Make sure you are appraising your staff member against the competencies for their role – not against the performance of another high performing staff member; the one you wish everyone could be like! This is called the ‘Contrast Effect’ - the tendency to rate staff relative to each other, rather than on the basis of individual performance criteria.
Other common problems include:
- Halo Effect – This if the tendency to rate a person who is an exceptional performer in one area, high in all other areas so that this one factor has a disproportionate influence on other factors. For example, someone who is hitting all their financial targets, but is terrible at delegating, needs to have their assessment fairly done. You need to be very conscious of your own bias in assessing performance. It’s a bit like having a favourite child.
- Horns Effect - This is, of course, the opposite of the Halo Effect – a tendency to rate a person who is underperforming in one area, low on all other factors. This is especially common where the factor is important to the supervisor.
- Path of Least Resistance - This is the tendency to avoid both high and low extremes, lumping all ratings in the middle category – it is easier than actually having to think about it, and is most common when supervisors leave it to the last minute, or when they know how the staff member has rated themselves and they want to avoid a difficult conversation.
- Mini Me - Some supervisors have a tendency to give persons who are similar to them higher ratings on the basis of biographical backgrounds, attitudes, approach to tasks etc. Again, a bit like having a favourite child.
Once you have done the ratings you must start thinking about the appraisal conversation.
- Venue - open plan offices do not lend themselves to appraisal discussions. Choose somewhere private where other staff can’t see you having the conversation, regardless of the content of the conversation.
- Plan – you wouldn’t go into a client meeting unprepared so don’t go into this meeting unprepared. Jot down what you want to say and how you want the conversation to finish.
- Good news – if it is largely a ‘good news’ appraisal, still conduct this in private, reflect on the previous appraisal period, and agree goals for the next 12 months. If this is a high performing individual don’t assume they will be happy with a ‘great job’ short appraisal. They thrive on positive feedback – give plenty of it and set some goals for them so that they have something to work on.
- Constructive Feedback – if you need to give some constructive or negative feedback, choose the time and place carefully. Always start with positive feedback where possible, and frame the conversation about what your employee could do better.
- Anticipate an emotional response – if you are giving constructive or negative feedback you must be prepared for an emotional reaction. If your employer responds emotionally then it is vital for you to keep your own emotions in check. Is very common for someone who perceives they’re being criticised to attack, blame, deny, shout, cry or generally be upset. Stay calm, let them say what they need to say, then bring the discussion back to the performance under discussion of the time. Don’t take an emotional reaction personally.
- Wrap up – always conclude your discussion with a ‘wrap up’ of what was discussed and what is being planned for the future.
Preparation and planning are key elements of any project – your staff appraisals are really no different.