Article: Appraising the appraisal

Performance Management

Appraising the appraisal

Despite being a universal phenomenon, why are annual reviews so universally feared and what can be done to address this?
Appraising the appraisal

During performance reviews, only 38.11% of the outstanding performers are satisfied with their ratings.(Impact Achievement Group Survey)


90% of performance appraisalprocesses are inadequate. (


A survey conducted by Achievers, a San Francisco based consulting firm, found that 98 per cent of the respondents felt that performance appraisals were an unnecessary waste of time. Interestingly, 24 per cent of the respondents were HR managers, 9 per cent were CEOs and the rest, employees. For all of us who have spent your waking hours in the last few months living and breathing annual reviews, the survey finding should be an eye opener. Why does a process that is meant to build better-performing organisations trigger such extreme reactions? As a matter of fact, few aspects of management stir up more controversy than the performance appraisals. While the proponents believe performance appraisals to be the most critical aspect of an organisational life cycle, opponents have gone to the extent of saying that the process is so inherently flawed that it may be impossible to correct it.

The most commonly-leveled criticisms against performance reviews are that they are time consuming, bureaucratic, counter-productive and de-motivating. L Gurunathan, professor of Personnel Management and Industrial Relations at Xavier Labour Relations Institute (XLRI), Jamshedpur, finds the basic assumption behind annual reviews flawed. “Why wait for the entire year to give feedback? It is an added burden on organisational resources to bear with employees who aren’t performing up to the mark. Imagine a coach who would wait till the season ends to give feedback to his players. Most managers are non-confrontational, and keep delaying feedback, even if they are not satisfied with their team member’s level of output. As a result, employees are almost always surprised and unhappy if the review is not positive.”

In fact, people also tend to question the idea of force-fitting rankings. Managers find it challenging to have performance review conversations, and hence annual review process tends to become a box-checking exercise in which conversations are generally one-sided, with no scope for dialogue. Further, managers and subordinates generally work at cross purposes during performance review discussions. While the manager talks about development opportunities, performance highlights, etc, the subordinate wants to put his best foot forward in the belief that he is negotiating pay, because ratings are linked to pay. Invariably, they end up talking past each other, instead of talking to each other. In the end, it is a failed discussion, and impacts their relationship later. Amitabh Kumar, Head-HR, NEC India Pvt Ltd observes, “Managers tend to look at annual appraisals as a tool to decide an individual’s increment, variable pay, etc., which are more tactical. They don’t look at it primarily as a development tool. This lackadaisical attitude translates into employee apathy regarding appraisals.” Anurag Aman, Principal, Leadership & Organisational Performance, Mercer, echoes similar view as he says, “Performance appraisals typically lead to unhappy employees due to misaligned expectations.”

The other pain point is to do with the lack of clarity as to what constitutes KRAs (Key Result Areas). Not knowing how to and on what parameters to measure the performance of an employee, gives ample reasons to argue that the review process is biased. Says V Krishnan, Executive Vice President-HR, Dabur India Ltd, “The KRAs, on the basis of which performance is evaluated, hardly cascade from the top to the individual level. Even if they do, the same is not communicated to employees. There isn’t any clarity on what is to be measured, and how it is to be measured. This makes the review process susceptible to personal biases of managers.”

Belling the Curve

Is the ‘Bell Curve’, that holds that most phenomena occur around middle points and a few around the higher and lower extremes, true for performance appraisals too? How does the inherent assumption of the model such as the ‘acceptable rate of failure’ and the ‘average performer’ impact the appraisals?

Gurunathan says, “The Bell Curve was introduced in performance appraisals by GE as an ‘initial constraint’ because managers weren’t able to objectively review performance and give a distributed rating.” However, he also maintains that there is a statistical violation in the way Bell Curves are implemented in the performance appraisal process. He explains that, for a Bell Curve to make sense, the sample size should at least be 35. But in reality, few managers have a span of control that wide, and hence the misapplication of the Bell Curve. Apart from a minimum sample size, there are other criteria such as the growth stage a business is in, the business environment, etc for Bell curve implementation to be effective.

Interestingly, the forced ranking system when introduced was called the vitality curve, where managers had to identify their direct reports on three categories – the top 20 per cent, the vital 70 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent. The nomenclature ‘vital’ for average performers clearly meant that employees rated as ‘average’ were essential to the existence of the organisation. However in the current reality being rated as ‘average’ translates into a perception of being ‘not so good’.
And since people generally tend to think that they are above average, conversations tend to shift from feedback and development to justification if they do not get the highest rating.

Should increments be linked to reviews?

Given that there is a perception that reviews are biased, does it make sense to link increments to reviews? “Pay is a function of many components, with performance levels being one factor. Linking it to annual reviews makes it seem as if performance is the only driving factor, which is not true. Also, the motive behind giving feedback is defeated when it is linked to compensation. People cannot receive constructive feedback objectively when they realise that it will have a direct impact on their pay,” asserts Gurunathan.
However there are others who believe that linking the two is the right approach. A Compensation & Benefits Head from a large organization, who did not want to be named, begs to differ as he says, “How else do you motivate your star performers?” “They are not always good enough to be promoted to the next level. But you need to give them some carrot to keep them engaged until they are ready for the next level, and differential pay is that carrot,” he added.

Next is what?

Digital media giant Adobe had its last ever annual performance review in 2012. In an interview with a business daily, Donna Morris, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Adobe, said that the decision was triggered by employee grievances every year. In the new system, managers will give regular feedback to the team instead of waiting for the year end. The $16.2 billion Minneapolis based medical technology company, Medtronic has also replaced its annual performance review system based on ratings and bell curves with a quarterly ‘performance acceleration’ process that focuses on forward looking goals, has no numbers or ratings and includes a one page summary sheet.

While few companies have actually gone to the extent of abolishing annual reviews completely, and we will know if the Adobe experiment is a success only in a few years, many are finding ways to make the existing process more engaging, and less dependent on managers. This begs the question, is there a secret recipe to effective reviews?

What is the secret ingredient?

While some companies have abolished the process completely, the bottom line is that, in some way or the other these reviews play an important role in defining the culture of an organisation. Sandeep Kohli, Director HR, Ernst & Young Pvt Ltd., says, “A holistic performance management system that focuses on goal setting, feedback, coaching, authentic conversations, is absolutely critical and indeed is the secret to high-performing companies.”

People are not complaining about the idea of reviewing performance but implementation of the process, and the inefficiencies that arise because of the gaps in implementation. Krishnan agrees, “You cannot simply blame the process; a lot depends on how you implement it. The secret lies in demystifying the process, making it simple and transparent, keeping the conversations going and not avoiding difficult conversations.”

Manmohan Kalsy, Head of HR, Xerox deciphers the approach at his company, “In order to ensure that employees are aware of their targets and are not surprised at the end of the year, we calibrate goals every quarter. We also have a monthly pay-out of variable pay. And since people need to be paid, they also need to be assessed, and hence the system puts pressure on the manager to evaluate performance on a monthly basis.” He, however, added that a monthly assessment is possible only because HR had ensured that teams are not very large, and each manager has a reasonable span of control.

Google, meanwhile, has made peer-reviews an integral part of the process. Besides self-appraisals and manager reviews, employees need to nominate three to eight peers to write their reviews. Managers also assign peers to do their direct report’s review. This makes the process more objective and less dependent on the manager, who might be influenced by personal bias.

Anil Sharma, Vice President-HR, ITC Hotels Division, sums it up, “The secret to a successful performance appraisal process is finding the right fit for your organization, making the process inclusive, being actively involved, aligning individual objectives to organizational objectives, finding the right linkages and evolving with the organisation. The final thing is that successful review system is not about which form or process you use but with how much rigour and fairness you do the appraisal, and it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes continued commitment to build a credible system.”







• Evaluate employees against pre-defined performance elements. These should be in the form of quantifiable and measurable goals.

• Normalise the appraisal process to ensure consistency in performance reviews done by different managers. Train managers to help them have a similar approach to performance review processes.

• Consider the arguments made by the employee about why he/she deserves a good increment.

• Make sure that your employees know about the criteria on the basis of which they are being evaluated.

• Judge an employee’s performance against his KRAs and not by comparing his performance to another employee’s.


• Do not base appraisals on third party feedback or hearsay.

• Do not focus only on the weaknesses of your employees while rating their performance.

• Do not ignore an employee’s feedback on his performance.

• Do not base your appraisal ratings on the high or low phase of an employee’s performance.

• Do not trash an employee’s suggestion during the appraisal meeting without listening to his side of the story.



• Discuss with your manager about your past performance. Give clarifications on the low performance areas and highlight your high performance areas wherever the need be.

• Reach out to your HR for clarity on your KRA and the points on the basis of which you will be appraised.

• If you think you deserve better ratings, talk to your manager with sufficient data points to substantiate your claims on your performance.

• During self-appraisal, highlight your initiatives that have benefited the organization. Mention examples or instances of your work contribution under relevant categories.

• Before the appraisal discussion, recall your performance over the last year and make notes about both the high and low performance areas.


• Do not rely on your memory to help you remember the highs and lows of your performance during the year. Document it.

• Do not refuse to sign the appraisal form. If you disagree with your appraiser on certain points, clarify it during the appraisal discussion.

• Do not get into self-praise mode or compare your performance with that of your colleagues. Give fair rankings to yourself.

• Do not fill self-appraisal form as a mere formality. If you cannot make your case, do not expect your manager to do it for you.

• Do not root for your appraisal on the basis of your traits. Performance management is an evaluation of results and not traits.


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Topics: Performance Management, Employee Engagement, Strategic HR

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