SO, HOW AM I DOING? Employee appraisal systems as a tool for enhanced performance

The health and well-being of employees is intricately linked to the health and well-being of the organisation they work for. In this article Ciaran Leonard proposes the use of ‘Performance Appraisal Interviews’, as a tool to enhance employee performance, improve employee.manager relationships and promote a continuously improving culture of relationships within the workplace environment through greater communication and sharing.


Human resource management has evolved over the last thirty years and best practice now envisages how to support the employee in order to bring out the best capabilities and performance to the advantage of both the organisation and the employee. Good appraisal systems have at their heart the ability to motivate and incentivise employees, while simultaneously seeking to avoid any escalation of difficulties associated in whatever way with the particular enterprise. The benefits from a good appraisal system should accrue on three levels in any organisation: organisational, managerial and to the individual employee. It involves bringing the best out of employees, overcoming any obstacles to the development of the service and is a solid application of the common.sense principle – to deal with any problems or issues at the first instance. To the three levels mentioned above I would add a fourth, given the nature of our business, the benefit to the service user.

Gunnigle et al. describe systems of appraisal as ‘a systematic approach to evaluating employees’ performance, characteristics or potential with a view to assisting with decisions in a wide range of areas such as pay, promotion, employee development and motivation’ (Reidy 2011).

In this article I propose to look at how a suitable system might be introduced (if not already present), the changes necessary for the successful implementation of this management strategy, and the obstacles which could reasonably be envisaged in developing such a system. I will present some strategies which may be helpful in anticipating and overcoming such resistance as there may be, before presenting some initiatives to manage an appraisal system on an ongoing basis. Finally, I will conclude with some general remarks on the benefits of good appraisal as a necessary management tool, particularly within the intellectual disability care setting.

Requirements for implementation

HR Driven
To consider the successful implementation of a formal appraisal system several criteria need be met. The initiative needs to be a coherent one, driven by the Human Resources Department and not left to individual line managers to develop in a piecemeal, fractious manner. So a solid HR project needs to be developed in accordance with best practice in the industry. The onset of HIQA inspections envisages that such a system is in place, functional and operational, with all the necessary documentation available. This alone should be sufficient motivation, but an innate desire to improve performance, deal constructively with issues in the workplace and increase the level of quality care afforded to service users would ensure a more positive incentive for the development of a suitable system. A constructive, positive approach by management would provide far more opportunity for a successful roll.out, rather than a haphazard system designed only to meet HIQA standards and regulations. Many organisations (such as Vodafone) have introductions to their employee appraisal system as part of their pre-induction training. I feel this would be an important and positive element of induction training for any organisation.

Culture change
Many organisations affording around.the.clock care have experienced a culture change in the model of care offered over the past decade or so. This transition would be greatly supported by a positive appraisal system where difficulties and doubts would have a proper, constructive airing, leading to changes in practices which are to everyone’s benefit. On top of this, we have to acknowledge that management styles have and continue to adapt and develop in response to new models of care. Formal appraisal systems are about changing practices after all.

Clear objectives
Any appraisal system needs to have clear objectives and structure from the outset. This will help to clarify what it is about and how it is to function, for both appraiser and employee. This heralds back to the point above concerning HR taking the lead and formalising a suitable system for the organisation. This also ensures that organisational support and any necessary resources are in place from the beginning.

Choosing an appropriate model
Reidy (2011) outlines seven possible methods of appraisal and, while this article does not analyse each one individually, I would like to mention the ‘management by objectives (MBO)’ approach to appraisal (Reidy 2011:76). I would consider this the most suitable and potentially the most beneficial approach given the particular circumstances of our business.

Working alone or in pairs, away from management supervision means that a set of objectives to be attained by the carer can be agreed for a set period. The social care worker will usually have recourse to the ‘person centred plan’ and ‘behaviour support plan’ for the clients in their care. Objectives have to be met to ensure these plans are successfully implemented to the benefit of the service user and it appears to me most appropriate that this would be the driver for evaluating the employee’s performance. It ensures also that the employee has greater control over and direction for their work. To this end I would suggest that a form of 360 degree appraisal be used in order to have as much feedback as possible from individuals better placed to observe the social care worker. This is important, given the difficulty for managers to be constantly present in a variety of disparate locations, making hands.on management or direction extremely difficult. This would allow input from one’s colleagues, families and advocates of service users and, where possible, from service users themselves. Undoubtedly, this would require an enhanced level of skill from the manager to gather the information, weight it appropriately and overcome possible communication difficulties with service users.

Management skills
Given what we have said above about the culture change involved in both the organisation’s modus operandi with the model of care and the challenges this presents to managers, it is imperative that they receive any training necessary to successfully implement an appraisal system. This would focus on the role of the appraisal system within the strategic development of the organisation and aim to provide the communication and analytical tools necessary for the successful rollout of the system. Not every manager may be a suitable candidate for implementing the process and this needs careful consideration at a more senior managerial level.

Possible Obstacles

Positive v negative perceptions
Success ultimately depends on how the project is presented and envisaged by all concerned. It would not be uncommon for employees to view such a program with suspicion initially. It may be perceived as a tool to ‘check up on them’ or to ‘keep tabs on them’. At worse it may come to be viewed as a mechanism to formally criticise their performance in the workplace—an extension of the disciplinary system.
On the other hand, a positive presentation of the scheme, pointing out the benefits to all concerned, can go a long way to change the gloss on the project. Staff have an innate suspicion of management motivations, especially during periods of change or turbulence. In the present context, where there are economic challenges, the culture change in care models and employees’ lack of knowledge around the concept may well challenge the system initially.

Discipline v reward
Suspicion is a powerful feature of industrial relations. It would not be difficult to envisage the challenge being presented in such terms: ‘Is this about getting me to do more?’, ‘Are they scrutinising my work, and if so why?’ ‘What will I get if I do as they say?’ ‘Why should I try to improve my performance – after all, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ Again, clear objectives and information will go a long way to changing attitudes.

Bad relationships
It would be naïve to believe that every manager–employee relationship ran smoothly or was approached with objectivity. The possibility of a pre-existing negative relationship needs to be considered, as this would have a detrimental impact on the appraisal system from the outset. Likewise, while it is to be understood that employees might not initially be fully conversant with the methods, objectives or purposes of appraisal systems, there is no excuse for the manager who is involved in implementing the system. The human factor in any relationship has to be considered and appropriate action taken to redress any negative aspects to it. If we were to adopt a 360 degree approach, factors such as relationships with other colleagues, the service users themselves and their families would have to be considered and evaluated appropriately.

Strategies to overcome resistance

HR strategy for rollout of appraisal system
Once a suitable method for appraisal has been chosen and HR have put together their strategy to incorporate it into the general management of the organisation, a positive rollout strategy needs to be implemented. This might involve a presentation for employees, literature being made available, testamentary evidence from other employees/managers where a similar system is in operation. Workshops where the obstacles and potential points of resistance can be named and addressed will also be likely to defuse negativity at an early stage. Active listening and effective feedback should be visible at this stage. A relatively senior manager with good communication skills will help demonstrate the seriousness of the organisation to pursue its objective while ensuring a positive gloss.

Involving the service users (despite the difficulties which would invariably present themselves) would require creativity, but it would also be a very strong statement from the organisation about the ‘person centredness’ it purports to encourage through its mission statement.

Employees should be given clear information about how the system will work, the roles and responsibilities of each partner, and the practical details involved. Again, positive examples need to be given and demonstrated. Employees should be encouraged to look forward not back—at how things can improve for them also.

Achieving commitment
Ultimately this is what we want to achieve. Creativity plays a major role, especially where there may be strong opposition. Management need to communicate effectively with staff to demonstrate that this is a process of equals, that managers too will engage in the process with their respective senior managers. The positives need to be stressed and the benefits to all. Recourse can be made to the organisation’s mission statement and ethos. Ultimately, staff need to know that it is happening. It may be helpful to build in a review period, especially when the scheme is new to the organisation.

Acceptance by doing
Over a relatively short period of time staff can be seen to buy into the process, especially if it is well conducted. Praise and recognition are strong motivators and can play a major role in the system. As part of a wider strategy, it may be beneficial to focus on the employee’s positive aspects and what they are seen to bring to their job, until such time as a positive attitude and relationship have been developed.
Some resistance is not necessarily a negative, as it helps to keep management focused on the scheme’s development, which might need tweaking at the early stages. This is a marathon not a sprint; issues arise and once they are handled and addressed well, this in turn buys commitment from all concerned.

Initiatives to manage system

KRAs and KPIs
A structured appraisal system should identify key result areas (KRAs), both for the organisation, for the department concerned and for the individual employee. Once the staff member see’s how attaining their objectives fits into the wider scheme of things, a more positive dynamic should ensue. Clarity over how to measure change around a particular issue can utilise agreed key performance indicators (KPIs), so that fairness and objectivity are part of the process from the outset. One of the interesting possibilities in such a project is the possibility it affords managers to assess the suitability of an employee to work with particular service users. Strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, can be considered which benefit the staff member, the service user and the manager alike.

It is always beneficial to build in periodic reviews of any new initiative or strategy, to ensure changes can be made effectively and notice taken of any genuine problems or issues that may arise in the early stages. At this stage it might also be evident that not every manager has the skill.set to do this task and a group of managers more able in this area may be an advantage. Similarly, reviewing the appraisal interview system with the employee can help identify concerns and build positive changes.

Benefits and rewards
In a properly functioning appraisal scheme, if promotion opportunities and pay or bonus payments are part of what emerges from the process, a more ready engagement will probably result. Meeting the employee’s personal needs will also reduce difficulties for all concerned, especially if there are specific family issues or some other exceptional difficulty interfering with employee performance. It assists the employer to make the best decisions when promotion is the issue and can throw up positive surprises in discovering areas of competence or skills, previously unknown to management, which can be utilised to the benefit of the organisation. In the current Irish care environment, however, pay.scales are set by the HSE and no room for maneuver exists. Likewise, working hours are fairly set by the needs of the service users. Recourse could be made to Employee Assistance Programmes and possibly the development of ‘Stress Buster’ policies.

Creativity is the key.

As an avid football fan, I find that an appropriate analogy might be seen in the comparison between the apparent abilities of team managers to bring out the best in their players through skillful When Roberto di Matteo assumed command of the Chelsea team, he inheirited basically the same squad of players as his predecessor, Andre Villas.Boas. The turn.around in the team’s performance (with the same resources) as evidenced by their reaching two major cup finals, is witness to how employees can be skillfully assisted to utilise previously hidden skills.

In the particular circumstances of an organisation which provides care for people with intellectual disability, the inclusion of those skills, where possible, would be a clear indicator as to how the employee is addressing the objectives for the enhancement of the quality of life of the service users, as outlined in their Person-centred plan. This, ultimately, is the nature of the business and improved quality care can be the only true measure of the employee’s performance.

Employers must comply with a raft of employment legislation. Should disciplinary procedures need to be used, the appraisal system can be of benefit in establishing how difficulties were addressed or tackled previously. Ideally, if the system is functioning well, it may stave off disciplinary procedures, but it provides the employee with another opportunity for putting things right— should there be a necessity to do so—and this in turn can have massive cost implications.

Finally, there is an old adage that a happy employee is a good one and positivity in the workplace has real benefits. Employees can experience working life as something akin to being in a box where routine dictates performance. Watching an employee grow, develop and contribute to the objectives of the organisation is something to be pursued and encouraged. When the quality of life of the citizens in our care is improved measurably, then the appraisal process can be heralded a success.