A fair appraisal?

By: Simon Wicks

Date: 6 December 2007

I dread appraisals. I sit through every one clenched and sweating, convinced I’ve cost the company gazillions in lost business and waiting for my boss to tell me to clear my desk and get out. I expect I have a face like a frightened deer. I also expect my boss thinks I have some sort of nervous disorder (I probably do).

In fact, I usually leave the room feeling fairly chipper. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that uses appraisals to give a fair review, set realistic objectives and listen to what I have to say about the business. Which is as it should be, right?

It seems I’m one of the lucky ones. An Investors in People survey revealed this week that almost one in three (29%) UK employees believe appraisals are a waste of time, and just under a quarter (23%) think their boss sees an appraisal as nothing more than a bureaucratic exercise.

This is a shame, because no matter how much I dread my appraisal I appreciate its value. But it gets worse. The research implies that the UK’s small businesses don’t particularly care about appraisals, with only slightly more than half (54%) even bothering to offer them to staff. This compares with four in five (81%) bigger businesses.

It’s easy to take figures like these and use them to create a picture of an army of hard-nosed small business owners shouting “Stop whingeing and get on with it!” every time an employee has the cheek to express a smidgeon of dissatisfaction. But I don’t believe this for a second. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of the people who think their appraisal is a waste of time work for bigger businesses, not smaller ones.

The reason I think this is something the big boss at our company, BHP,  said to me this week. I was picking his brains for an article on staff retention and he suddenly leant forward, fixed me with a rueful gaze and declared, “The problem is, Simon, that as soon as you get to ten employees you stop having personal relationships with them. You have to introduce systems.”

He’s right. As businesses grow, the gap between the boss and the people at the other end of the chain also grows until, eventually, they don’t know each other at all, and everybody matters just a little bit less. So you need appraisals, to keep tabs on everyone – and, sometimes, just to give the impression that you care. At this point they can become a waste of time.

In a smaller business, the boss has more far more opportunity to find out what makes their staff tick, what they want to achieve, how they’re getting on with the job. Bosses who take the time to get to know their staff may not feel the need to conduct an appraisal every year or every quarter; they’re already doing it, every day. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t conduct formal appraisals; but it does mean that when they do their appraisals are far more likely to have value, simply because they care.

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