Are appraisals really useless?

24 Apr 2014

The former Head of HR at the BBC, Lucy Adams, is reported to have said recently that appraisals don’t work, suggesting that they generate stress and mistrust rather than having a positive effect on productivity or motivation (see Personnel Today’s report of her speech by clicking here).

Ms Adams (no relation) may be exaggerating for effect, but there may be some truth in what she says – I suspect that having an appraisal or conducting one generates a degree of tension for many people. So are they just a pointless box-ticking exercise, an awkward, once a year confrontation or a waste of paper? They may be all of those things but, as an employment lawyer, I can offer two important reasons why appraisals are not useless.

Firstly, the annual appraisal process may be the only time that an employee’s performance is formally assessed. It is effectively a substitute for line management in organisations in which people don’t have the time, training or inclination to manage performance on a daily basis. That may sound cynical, but it is just a fact of life that micro-management of performance is either not a priority for many organisations, large and small, or not something they have the resources to do. In such cases, an annual appraisal process gives the employer two opportunities to address the under-performance of a new employee before unfair dismissal rights apply.

Secondly, recording sub-standard performance in an appraisal equates to performance management of a sort. This can be crucial in the case of persistent under-performers. When patience runs out or a restructuring exercise triggers dismissal, we all know that a written record of having made them aware of inadequate performance and failure to improve can significantly strengthen the case for a fair dismissal and help to rebut any “speculative” allegations of discrimination.

So appraisals have a clear risk management function. Whether they can or should also have a motivating and incentivising function is a question that I will leave to those who are better qualified to deal with it.

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