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Rave reviews: getting staff appraisals right

1 September 2007

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Patricia Gray

Patricia is a management adviser, trainer and facilitator in general practice. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and was a practice manager/partner for 11 years

It’s that time of year again … well, maybe not right at the moment, but you will know when it comes around. You will get a sinking feeling about a month beforehand and, all of a sudden, the terrible time will be upon you.

What am I talking about? The staff appraisals, of course! It’s not that the process is unpleasant (although bits of it might be), it’s just that it takes up so much time and, whenever you pitch it, you will be sure that it will clash with some other very important and time-consuming project.

Most practices now undertake annual staff appraisals – some perhaps merely for the purpose of ticking the box for Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) points. However, many practices have been carrying them out for years. But whether you are a relative newcomer or an old-timer, either way it is worth reflecting on why we do appraisals and how we can ensure success.

Benefits for the whole practice
A well-run appraisal system should have advantages all round. For the employee, it gives protected time with their manager to reflect on their contribution to the practice, to find out how they are doing, to be valued and appreciated for working well, to identify any barriers to good performance, and to air any concerns they may have.

For the manager, it provides a special opportunity to get to know the employee better, to reinforce good work and challenge poor performance, to understand what motivates each individual, and to help plan how he or she can develop in the future.

For the practice, the process should improve efficiency and teamwork as well as clearing blockages in communications, and contribute towards planning for the future. Ultimately, a well-run appraisal scheme should improve patient care.
Beware of the dangers
There are, however, some potential pitfalls. The process can be unpredictable and can unleash strong feelings. The appraiser may not be competent to undertake the process, and may not be objective. The appraiser and appraisee may be uncomfortable with one-to-one discussions, or there may be a misunderstanding about what is involved.

If the process is abandoned halfway through or is carried out just as a tick-box exercise with no meaning, staff will become disillusioned. All this points to the importance of good preparation, and how necessary it is for managers to be appropriately trained.

Preparation should include arranging a meeting with the staff before the process gets underway to explain what appraisals are all about and to answer any queries or concerns.

This is worthwhile doing even if you have been carrying out appraisals for some time, as new members of the team may never have been appraised before. A meeting will also encourage staff to get onboard and take ownership of their own appraisals. It is important that the manager is positive, upbeat and emphasises the benefits all round.

Get in good form
Most practices use preparatory paperwork for employees to reflect on various aspects of their jobs. This typically includes recording:

  • Personal achievements.
  • New skills that have been acquired over the preceding year.
  • Any difficulties in carrying out duties.
  • Skills that are not being used to their full potential.
  • Likes and dislikes about the job – and why.
  • Any future training needs.

The preparation form usually invites the employee to add any other points to be discussed at the appraisal meeting. It is a good idea to attach the current job description to the appraisal form, so that this can be updated. The personal development plan (PDP) from the previous year could also be attached.

There are many different types of appraisal forms available. A quick search on the internet will find plenty of examples. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) provides a sample appraisal form, which is simple and to the point.

A well-designed form should be written neutrally, using encouraging statements or questions, provide enough space for responses, and not be too complicated to complete. Practices might consider paying each employee an extra half-hour to complete their form. This would emphasise the importance of the employee’s participation, and demonstrate recognition that the form may need to be completed away from the workplace.

Managers will need to decide how long in advance to hand out the forms, and whether to insist that they are returned before the meeting. Having the paperwork in advance will be a great help for the manager to prepare for the meeting, and should identify any difficult issues to be discussed.

Managers often worry that employees will harp on about a pay rise or another grievance at the meeting, but experience indicates that this rarely happens – unless of course there are major unresolved issues happening at the same time. Nevertheless, being warned of a possible grievance will give the manager time to seek further information and plan a response.

Location, location, location
The manager will need to take particular care in planning appraisal meetings. A suitable location will need to be arranged, preferably one that provides privacy, is comfortable, and where there is no danger of interruptions!

The practice manager’s own office should be avoided, unless there is really no other alternative, as this will make it difficult to create neutral territory.

Some practices are so strapped for space that they have to use a consulting room to carry out appraisals. This is not ideal either, as a clinical territory may imply an inappropriate doctor–patient relationship.

If your office or a consulting room has to be used, ensure that the layout does not include a desk between the appraiser and appraisee. Simple, easy chairs with a coffee table in between should create a suitably relaxed atmosphere.

It is vital that no one comes bursting into the room while in use, or that the telephone does not ring, as this will give the message that the employee is not really very important.

Time after time
Then there is the question of how much time to allow each meeting. Most practice managers will find they need to allocate an hour for each meeting, although some might not take as long.

Factoring in the preparation time and the paperwork completion afterwards, the manager should probably allow an hourand-a-half for each employee. As so much time needs to be devoted to this exercise, it is important the manager factors this into the work schedule, and accepts that getting through the appraisal meetings will be the priority of the month.

Making appointments for appraisal meetings is in the manager’s control, so it is worth thinking about the best time of the week and day. For instance, Mondays are almost certainly worth avoiding, as are early mornings when everyone is busy. It might be sensible organising meetings at the end of shifts. Once arranged, try not to postpone the meeting, and try to ensure that an appraisal meeting is not followed by some other meeting that might distract you during the appraisal.

Preparation is the key
Before the appraisal meeting, the manager will need to read through the employee’s preparation form, and seek informal feedback from the partners and, if appropriate, from the employee’s supervisor.

The manager will also need to review last year’s appraisal and PDP, as well as any other relevant information from the personnel file, such as absence records or disciplinary matters. The manager should prepare any sensitive questions beforehand.

The appraisal itself is unlike any other interview the manager may hold – for instance, a selection or disciplinary interview. If the manager is not experienced in carrying out appraisals, training will certainly improve confidence, as well as being aware that most of the talking should be done by the employee.

Here are some useful tips to ensure a successful appraisal meeting:

  • Use the preparation form as a structure for the meeting. Start by greeting the employee warmly, and thanking them for completing the paperwork. It might be helpful to start with a few pleasantries unrelated to work, but don’t spend too long going off on a tangent and wasting valuable time.
  • If the employee appears nervous, it may be helpful to explain the process and ask if there are any concerns. Then, following the layout of the form, ask the employee to go through the comments they have recorded. Listen carefully to what they have to say and encourage them to expand on the detail.
  • Add your own comments, such as expressing appreciation for the employee’s commitment and hard work. If appropriate, state any disagreement with the employee’s views, and give constructive feedback, which should be balanced and realistic. This obviously needs to be handled with sensitivity.
  • While it is quite appropriate to reflect on unresolved performance issues, it is not fair to harp on about the past if it has been dealt with and the employee has moved on. Avoid comments that could in any way be linked to discrimination – such as stating that the employee’s performance may have slowed up with their increase in age (in view of recent age discrimination legislation).
  • The appraisal meeting should end with agreement about the employee’s training and development needs.

After the meeting, the manager should add a summary of the discussion to the form, which both manager and employee should sign. A copy should be given to the employee, and another copy kept on the personnel file. The job description may also need to be revised.

Following the appraisal, the manager should ensure that training needs are addressed during the coming year, and common problems dealt with. The manager and the partners will want to meet to discuss the process. A staff meeting shortly after the appraisal will check morale, which, if everything went well, should be uplifted.