Reality often does not match intent when it comes to performance appraisals. In a relatively common, worst-case scenario, the boss hands the employee a filled-out form for the employee, who may or may not agree to sign. Is this preferable to “no appraisal at all” (which is also surprisingly common)? Reflect on your own experience with the process, as giver and/or receiver.

A vast amount of research has gone into “improving the instrument.” “Behaviorally-Anchored Rating Scales” (BARS) and the related “Behavioral Observation Scales” (BOS) aim to reduce the subjective elements of the review process (“I like Jack, so I think he is pretty good at everything”) and connect the appraisal to objective observables (“Jack completes more than 90% of his assigned work on or ahead of schedule”). Still, years of practice with such tools indicates the appraisal form per se can’t alone fix the problem of poor performance reviews. The problem is not the form; the solution is not the form. An improved form simply can’t do it all.

Making appraisals effective

Effective performance appraisal is built on these steps of a “performance management sequence”:

1) Clearly define and communicate performance goals. Tied directly to the expectations and requirements of the job, what are the ongoing “normal” objectives of the job (technical outputs commonly captured in the job description, if the job description is accurate and up to date)? Second, what are the goals beyond normal job duties --special project assignments or other developmental assignments that may be outside the normal parameters of the job?

Plus, what are the behaviors or enabling skills to be implemented by the employee as he/she works toward meeting performance expectations that have been set for the review cycle? Critical behaviors are commonly identified in a so-called “competency model.” If key attributes for success (interpersonal, cognitive, leadership skill sets) have not been defined, they should.

2) Identify coaching and training needs, so the employee has a fair shot at achieving performance goals. Such knowledge-and-skill building should be explicitly built into the year’s performance plan, documented and audited.

3) Measure and evaluate performance in relation to the set and agreed upon goals. Tracking ideally includes an assessment of performance outcomes and the relevant behaviors that have been identified (e.g., how is the employee communicating, collaborating in a team environment, making effective decisions in a timely way.

4) Give ongoing performance feedback based directly on measurement and evaluation.  For newer employees or those who have had performance problems, feedback will be more frequent. For the longer-term, higher-performing employee, it can be less frequent (though not zero). I encourage a more or less comprehensive review at mid-cycle. It may or may not be formal and documented in detail, but it should address performance in toto up to that point, and it should be specific. For the newer or lower-performing employee, a more frequent, say quarterly review, may be beneficial. You want to let employees know where they stand, and give them opportunities to correct any performance problems as early as possible. In the end, a performance appraisal should include “no surprises.”

5) Have your employee first self-assess. He/she can complete a draft version of the performance appraisal form, and bring it to your performance review conversation. You can comment verbally on the employee’s self-ratings and add your own ratings and comments.

This conversation should result in a document representing your assessment of each critical regular job responsibility, additional goals set at the start of the cycle, and behavioral competencies, in light of the employee’s self- assessments. There will be the opportunity for both you and your employee to comment on each assessment, and to sign the document, which becomes part of the employee’s personnel file.

As part of the performance appraisal discussion, or in a separate subsequent conversation, goals for the upcoming review cycle are set.

Conversations trump forms

A documented performance review form cannot stand alone. Ongoing, two-way, mutually understood communication is paramount. These conversations are far more important than the forms. If I had to choose between two alternatives -- a set of forms and documents without ongoing communication, or a rich ongoing communication process without all the forms, I would tilt very strongly toward the latter. A one-page summary in the context of a clear, feedback-rich, high-communication working relationship always trumps a ten-page BARS as a stand-alone tool.

Here’s the sweet spot: follow the communication-rich steps that I outline above, and document the summary in a user friendly way.  Performance appraisal, in the context of an overall performance management sequence as outlined here, can be an affirming, mutually rewarding process; it need not be a dreaded chore.