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Your Appraisal System Can Be Better - Overcome These Nine Serious Failings
By Bill Robb

Summary: Written specifically for senior managers, this article identifies nine reasons why appraisal interviews often go awry, and presents some prescriptions to help executives avoid these nine common pitfalls.

This article is directed at senior managers. As a senior colleague you have the authority to make tremendous improvements. You can have maximum effect in improving your existing appraisal system or starting one that contributes to profits or other targets.

1. Bad experiences of appraisals.

For a senior manager like yourself, it is important to accept that many people fear and dislike appraisal interviews.

Many people have had terrible experiences when being appraised. Consequently, they think appraisals are a stick for Management to beat them with - to give them a "telling - off" and to give out extra workload. Appraisals for many people are threatening events. Many people feel their pay-rise, and continued employment, depend on performing well in a short interview. People worry about appraisers who may not like them; who have to make subjective judgements and who may have stepped "out of the wrong side of bed that day". Many people worry about their inadequacies being exposed and about being belittled.

Many appraisers (managers) have also had bad experiences when appraising their employees. They know they are expected to get people to change but don't know how. They worry about upsetting people and causing arguments. Most appraisers "know" that appraisal interviews are bureaucratic and time consuming and that the company doesn't intend doing anything with the information gleaned from them. Consequently, many appraisers and appraisees treat appraisals as a burden - a time-waster - to be completed as quickly and painlessly as possible.

2. Benefits of appraisals aren't properly explained.

People change when they see the benefits of changing. So why are so many appraisal systems introduced without spelling out the benefits? Many companies who have appraisal systems do not have the benefits written down in plain English. Benefits are not explained to new employees, and "old-hands" don't know the benefits either. Consequently, most people participate in appraisals because they are forced to. They participate half-heartedly because they cannot see the benefits for themselves.

3. Lack of consultation when appraisals are introduced or re-vamped.

Frequently, personnel departments or senior management teams introduce or re-vamp an appraisal system without consulting the people who will use it. Often, what looks good in theory and attempts to be thorough, are totally impractical and irrelevant. Consequently, many people feel confused and resentful. They think appraisals are:

introduced by the Personnel Department to justify its existence

merely form-filling to keep senior management happy

a way of checking on people and demanding more work

a way of deciding on salary, wage or bonus levels.

Many people don't understand what the questions on the interview form are for. Without buy-in, many people's fears are heightened and they don't co-operate as fully as they could and should.

4. Managers aren't trained in appraisal interview techniques.

Most managers are not trained in conducting appraisal interviews. As a result, almost everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. The appraisees don't get the motivating feedback necessary to improve their commitment and productivity; the appraiser doesn't learn how he or she could manage better; and the company doesn't get the data it needs for planning and improving what it does. Poor interviewing by appraisers reinforces people's worst fears and sometimes creates more problems.

5. The form used to guide the appraisal interview and record its results, is poor.

Most forms are too long and some questions ask for irrelevant information. However, the most serious and damaging fault is including questions that are just pure nonsense. Appraisers are sometimes asked to make artificial judgements and it is impossible to turn this information into action that helps the appraisee and the company. A related problem is trying to get the appraisal system to do to much. This results in off-putting, ten-page questionnaires that take ages to complete and result in a mass of data that is never analysed.

6. Employees don't have adequate job descriptions

Without adequate job descriptions there is no sound starting point for the interview and there is no way of measuring improved performance. How can you evaluate someone's performance if you don't have an exact picture of what the appraisee is supposed to be doing. It is the performance of the various tasks in the job description that must be appraised and improved. I know some managers are suspicious of job descriptions, worrying that some employees will use them to "work to rule", but more about this later.

7. People aren't given company-wide feedback.

Many people I encounter are never told the results of the latest completed appraisal round. Frequently, people mention that after their interview they hear nothing until the next year when they're asked to undergo another appraisal. People want to know how they did during their own interview. In addition, most people want to know how they did in relation to others. What were the main themes? What are the training needs and what has been done about them? What important lessons were learned? What changes have come about so we can do better? What changes are to be made to enhance the working environment? If people are not given this overall feedback it reinforces their previous experiences of appraisals just paying lip service to improving performance - that nothing really happens.

8. Organisation and monitoring of appraisals is inadequate.

Managers tell me they are given a list of people they have to appraise and a deadline for completion of the interviews, and that's it! They personally have to find the appraisal forms and any other supporting documents. Often deadlines are too short and people can't do the interviews in time with all their other commitments. Sometimes deadlines are too long and people forget. No one monitors how the appraisers are progressing - they are just left to it. Some companies spread the appraisals over a year according to birthdays and as a result cannot collate the company-wide information into an effective plan. Some companies lump appraisals and pay-reviews together with the result that people clam up on things that really matter to the company. In addition, they make up whatever they have to, to get a pay-rise. Appraisals, in addition to helping people perform better, should help the company do better. Without usable information from the whole appraisal round, half the value of appraisals is lost.

9. The most senior manager isn't seen to give appraisals top priority

As a senior manager you are reading this article to help your people and company do even better, so I know you won't mind some straight talking. The fundamental reason why appraisals fail is lack of explicit and highly visible support from the most senior manager. Usually, introducing or re-vamping an appraisal system is left to the Personnel Department - alone. It is the Personnel Manager or even the Personnel Secretary who sends out the forms and asks for them to be sent back to some administrative clerk by the due date. This reinforces the unfortunate perception that appraisals are not important and give little value. This is exacerbated when senior managers do not complete their interviews on time and when the managing director is not assertive with appraisers who do not complete their interviews on time, or at all. It is right and necessary to delegate the administration of the appraisal system but the letter "kicking-off" the appraisal round and giving deadlines for return of forms should be from the most senior manager.

Without doubt, properly conducted appraisals are one of the most powerful tools for enhancing your people's performance and your business's profits. Find ways to avoid these nine mistakes and your people will learn to enjoy appraisals with all the benefits of improved performance.

Dr Bill Robb helps organisation improve their systems so that their people can perform even better.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.


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