The recent news that employees of Coventry University went on strike over their appraisals process will come as no surprise to seasoned watchers of large organisations.
Staff contend that the university has introduced a system that forces people to ‘jump through hoops’ in order to receive annual pay awards that are standard issue at other institutions. And while the university argues that it has ‘worked hard’ to accommodate disaffected employees, the situation shows no sign of being resolved in the short term.
The whole issue of appraisals is one that’s long overdue for a review. For while it might have seemed sensible to link academic ideas of performance management to remuneration and benefits, there’s little doubt that the HR dream of identifying talent (and rooting out the bad apples) is poorly served by the idea.
Of course there are countervailing voices that dismiss any notion of removing work performance appraisals from the calendar. For these people, the process offers a measure of staff engagement and an opportunity to assess progress to date. Depending on the assessment criteria established in the last meeting, it is either the metaphorical arm round the shoulder or the firm boot to the rump and should on no account be cauterised.
For most of us, the problem with that viewpoint becomes immediately apparent by reflecting on personal experience. Most workers – especially if they have a grievance or want to broach a difficult subject – do not know how to use the performance appraisal situation to advance their own points of view. The paperwork can be forbidding and the relationship with the boss even more so. Then there’s the often formal nature of the process and the feeling that you’re ‘on trial’. None of these factors are conducive to engagement – either from the company or the individual’s perspective. In effect it becomes an opportunity for the HR machine to dismiss hard work as ‘what you’re hired to do’ and quietly put any real plans for staff development (or performance related pay) away in a dusty filing cabinet.
Those executives clinging to the economic argument might find themselves scrabbling for a foothold, too. A report published in 2012 collected 23,000 employee ratings from 40 companies and overwhelmingly found that there was no link between job appraisal scores, recording a profit or suffering a loss.
A representative for the Workers Union said: ‘Given the state of flux that surrounds the country, it seems a good time to tackle the issue of job appraisals and make them into something that’s a worthwhile experience for employees. Yes, there are some excellent examples of national appraisals practised in the charitable and tech sectors, but much remains to be done to encourage the widespread adoption of a ‘people first’ approach.
‘We’re asking that business commits to making staff development an engine for positive change. Appraisal meetings should be part of a year-long investment in improving the skills and abilities of staff. They should not be seen as an opportunity for faint praise or dire warnings. Hard working people want to feel like there’s something glittering at the end of the working rainbow, but to get there business is going to have to invest in a structured system that actually allows staff to become stakeholders in a company’s success. This approach surely points the way to future models, where widespread adoption of new technology and more contract work could see increasingly fractured teams that rely heavily on remote working. In this scenario, companies will have to take on a whole different ethos in order to make themselves attractive to staff.’
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