A Comprehensive Guide to Staff Appraisals

Published on 23/11/2019


When you hear the words ‘appraisal’, or ‘staff development review’, what do they make you feel? 

As an employee, it might make you worry or even panic. As an employer, it might make you roll your eyes in exasperation, due to the sheer amount of work coming your way. 

The problem with appraisals is that they have long been given a bad reputation and as a result, they’re not used to the best of their ability by either employees or employers. 

Whilst there is no solid employment law which states that a business must have staff development reviews or appraisals on a yearly basis, the overwhelming majority of business do these as a matter of course, and it is something which is written into their policies and procedures.

This is a good thing, whether you like the idea of these reviews or not. An appraisal or staff development review is an opportunity to discuss issues which are bothering you, work out how well you’re doing, identify training needs and also highlight any suggestions you have which might help you reach your overall career goals. From an employer’s point of view, appraisals can help to identify any problems an employee is having, and work out how to solve them, in order to increase productivity in general. 

When you put it that way, appraisals don’t seem all bad, but they have the reputation as being a meeting between staff member and manager in order to point out things they’re doing wrong. That’s not what they’re predominantly for, but of course, if there are major issues this is a good place to raise them.

This guide is going to tell you everything you need to know about appraisals, or staff development reviews. We’re going to explain why they have that bad reputation and how to avoid it becoming a word of phrase of fear within your office. We’re also going to talk about the best way to have an appraisal and what should and shouldn’t be covered. By the end, you should be left in no doubt about the benefits of staff development reviews or appraisals, and you should be thinking about incorporating high-quality reviews on a yearly basis for every single member of your staff.

What is a Staff Appraisal?

Before we get into the ins and outs of appraisals, we need to really determine what they are. You’ve probably heard about them but have you actually conducted one yourself as an employer? Have you had one as an employee? Most have, but it's possible that your workplace doesn’t place importance upon them, or that you’re a new employee and you’re yet to have your first review.

Whichever side of the line you fall on, it’s important to understand that appraisals are not designed to be a negative thing.

You’ll hear the words “appraisal” and “staff development review” used interchangeably and they’re basically the same thing. “Appraisal” is the older word, and “staff development review” is the newer term. Despite that, they both cover the same areas. Staff development review sounds like worrying, which is part and parcel of the attempt at knocking down the stigma surrounding these reviews. We’ll use the terms interchangeably throughout this guide, but it’s important to realise that there is no difference.

This type of review is designed to allow both employer and employee to talk freely about any problems they have, any issues they want to discuss, as well as identifying any training needs or opportunities they would like to take up. An appraisal is also about praising employees for a job well done - as you can see, appraisals aren’t designed to be negative or a ‘telling off’ session!

Of course, an appraisal is a recorded meeting which goes on the personal record of the employee, so they are a formal review. It’s important to realise that anything discussed can go onto your record, but if you ask to discuss something confidentially, e.g. if you’re struggling, then you can also talk freely without worrying about this being recorded. You should bear in mind however that if any action is required regarding the issue you raise, this may need to be recorded. It really depends on what the problem or issue is, but talking freely is encouraged at appraisals. 

Check out this video which gives a quick overview of staff development reviews. 

The Pros And Cons of Staff Appraisals

So, if an appraisal is a formal meeting which allows both employer and employee to discuss issues and achievements, are there any downsides, and exactly what are the upsides? 

Let’s look at the pros and cons of staff appraisals in turn, both from the employee and employer point of view.

The Pros of Staff Appraisals 

  • The opportunity to talk about problems or issues - Of course, if you have problems in the workplace you shouldn’t wait until your yearly review to discuss them, but if you don’t want to approach your manager beforehand, or it’s something which isn’t particularly pressing to deal with urgently, you can raise this at your appraisal with ease and know that you’ll be listened to and action will be taken, if required.
  • Identifying training needs or wishes - If you want to go on a training course, you can use your review as the ideal place to bring up the matter and request to be booked on it. You can also explore with your manager about training courses which might benefit you after you’ve both discussed your areas of strengths and weaknesses. 
  • The chance to talk about future career options - An appraisal is a good opportunity to bring up your wishes of promotion in the future. This helps to highlight your interest with your manager and as a result, they can give you advice on what you might need to improve, or which route to go down. 
  • Can help to improve motivation - Appraisals aren’t all about talking about problems and identifying training needs, they’re also a good opportunity to talk about a job well done or discuss a particularly successful project. Everyone likes to hear praise and this can be extremely motivating for the employee. As a result productivity increases, which benefits the business too!
  • A skills improvement plan can be identified - This is the ideal opportunity to put into place an action plan which allows the employee to reach their goals and helps the business to ensure productivity continues and improves.
  • Can help to boost confidence - Just as appraisals are ideal for boosting motivation, they can also help to improve confidence in employees who may be lacking in a little self-esteem. This may have happened due to a conflict in the workplace or perhaps even personal issues, but discussing the work they do in a positive manner can help them to feel better about their performance and their skillset. 

The Cons of Staff Appraisals

Everything has its downsides to work with the upsides, and in this case, the main disadvantages of appraisal are: 

  • Appraisals tend to strike fear into employees - We’re going to talk about the negative reputation which appraisals have and why shortly, but because of that very issue, employees tend to worry when they know that their particular review time is coming up. This could mean that their performance and productivity drops because they’re focused on worrying about what is going to be discussed. 
  • Few businesses place importance upon appraisals - Probably due to the negative stigma which surrounds appraisals, many businesses don’t tend to take them seriously. As a result, these reviews are often rushed or undertaken by someone without the proper training. This means both the employee and business don’t benefit from what could have been discussed had more importance been placed upon the process. 
  • A lack of training in undertaking appraisals - It’s important that managers are trained in conducting appraisals in the right way, in order to get the most out of them. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with many businesses. 
  • Time constraints can get in the way - Of course, most businesses are busy these days and we’re all trying to hit targets. This means that appraisals are rushed and not conducted properly, leading to a less than positive experience on both sides. 
  • The wrong focus - In some cases, usually when a manager isn’t trained correctly, appraisals tend to focus on negative elements, e.g. picking apart the things an employee doesn’t do so well, rather than focusing on an even balance and trying to be positive. This can be demotivating and add to the fear factor when appraisal time is around the corner.

As you can see, all of these disadvantages can be overcome when appraisals are carried out properly and when managers are trained in the correct way. 

Why do Appraisals Have a Bad Reputation?

So, why do appraisals have this bad reputation that we’ve all heard about?

It’s mainly because they’ve been used incorrectly in the past. Whilst appraisals have been around for many years, not a huge amount of importance was placed on conducting them properly in the past. This means that they were traditionally used to point out all the things which an employee was doing wrong, or which they could be doing better. 

Of course, nobody wants to sit there whilst someone lists their negative points and talks about everything they need to do better. For this reason, appraisals often haven’t worked out in the past, and this has filtered down to create a negative sense of what the entire review process is meant to be about. 

Check out this infographic which highlights a few potential reasons for why appraisals have received a bad reputation over the years.

Source - https://www.officevibe.com/blog/performance-appraisal-infographic

A little later we’re also going to discuss something called key performance indicators, or KPIs. These are targets which are used to measure progress and success. These are useful when used in the right way, but they can also be used incorrectly and create a sense of fear for employees too. 

When KPIs aren’t developed properly, e.g. an employee is given an unrealistic target to meet, it creates stress, tension, and even fear. This is all completely demotivating and affects productivity in a big way. It can also be a reason for employees to leave a business, if they feel they’re not being supported, or if they feel everything is negatively focused. 

Creating a positive impression of appraisals or staff development reviews is important if you want to knock down this stigma and avoid employees becoming worried when their review is due. Being worried about a pending review is another factor which may affect productivity. As you can see, it all affects business, as well as how employees feel about their own performance. 

How to Help Staff Members View Appraisals in a Positive Light

Now we know why appraisals are often seen as something negative, how can you ensure that staff members start to see these reviews in a positive way?

It comes down to the way you approach them and the way you conduct them. It’s a good idea to give your employees preparation time. Check out this video which gives a few tips.

If you want to change the way staff development reviews are seen by your employees, here are a few ideas on how you can achieve that aim:

  • Before reviews are due, send employees a questionnaire which is designed in a positive way. For example, ask questions such as “what was your biggest achievement this last year?”, “what additional training courses would you like to go on in the near future?”, “are there any measures we can put into action to help you in your role?” These are questions focused on positive elements and not questions which are focused on perceived failures and weaknesses. This questionnaire can then be taken to the review and will form the basis of the discussion. 
  • Ensure that managers have high-quality appraisal training. This will allow managers to focus on conducting reviews in a positive manner, rather than trying to rush them and focus on the wrong areas. After an employee has had a high quality and positive appraisal, they won’t be so worried about the next one and word of mouth will filter down to the rest of the office, letting everyone know that it’s actually a positive process and nothing to worry about. 
  • Whilst appraisals are designed to be a formal process, you can take the edge off the situation by conducting them in a relaxed setting. Think about office tub chairs in a conservatory area or in a break area, provided the setting is confidential enough for this type of meeting. If the weather is nice, you could even conduct your appraisals outdoors. This is far better than sitting around the oval boardroom table with acres of space between you and a very formal and “stuffy” atmosphere.
  • Ask employees for their suggestions on how to improve the process. Asking for input shows that you’re taking the review process seriously, but also that you’re open to ways in which employees might feel more comfortable. You can also learn about the things they like about appraisals and the things they don’t. This is valuable information in terms of improving the entire appraisal process. 

As you can see, it’s really about the way in which you approach the appraisal and the atmosphere you create around them. If you focus on this being a very formal meeting which needs to take place every single year, then you’re going to force employees to feel worried about it when their turn comes around. However, if you ask for opinions and create a sense that this is more of a dual-benefit discussion and an opportunity to talk openly, then you’ll find that employees are more likely to open up and actually discuss things. 

When you do that, you’re also creating a huge benefit for the business. A sense of fear can cause employees to keep their mouths closed about certain issues. For instance, there might be something about the office set up which everyone finds upsetting difficult to work with, but you won’t know about this unless staff feel able to talk to you about it. 

Perhaps everyone feels that their office chairs are uncomfortable and they’re creating backache problems, but nobody wants to come forward and mention it. An appraisal could be the ideal opportunity to find this information out, make changes, and therefore increase productivity within the office space and morale overall. 

What Should And Shouldn’t be Discussed at an Appraisal?

Now we know what appraisals are and we’ve talked about knocking down the stigma that has been attached to these reviews in the past, it’s important to highlight the things you should and shouldn’t discuss. 

Of course, if an employee wants to raise a particular issue, you should allow them to lead the discussion and take it where it needs to go, but in terms of the general template for discussion, there are certain guidelines you should follow in order to ensure that everyone benefits from the process. 

Bear these points in mind:

Avoid Talking About Things Which Happened in The Distant Past

Unless a particular issue or subject is very relevant to the present day, you should avoid talking about things which happened in the past. Staff reviews are about how the employee is doing now and identifying ways to help them in the here and now and develop for the future. Avoid dragging up problems which may have occurred a few years ago or even a year ago, and talk about things as they are at this point in time. 

Going back to the past without good reason is demotivating and make may the employee feel uncomfortable or awkward. Everyone makes mistakes, and dragging these up every time you have a review is just going to cause the employee to dread their appraisal, rather than approaching it from a place of positivity. 

Don’t be Too Generic

An appraisal which is generic, i.e. it’s not a personal review, is not going to bring many rewards and the employee will simply view it as a waste of time. Indeed, the manager conducting the appraisal will see it in the same way. 

Avoid general questions, such as “how do you think you’re doing?”, or “where do you see yourself in five years’ time”, and instead tailor the review to the specific circumstances and role of the employee in question. This will ensure everyone gets something out of the review and avoids the negative connotations that appraisals are often linked with.

Managers conducting appraisals should also make sure that they know the employee and what they do, rather than having a stranger trying to discuss issues and strengths. Sure, if an employee prefers an impartial third party to do their review, that’s fine, but overall it is better to have an immediate manager conducting it instead. 

Make Sure You Back up Everything With Examples 

If you’re telling an employee that they’re doing something well, make sure you give an example of a time they did so. Equally, if you’re trying to tell an employee that you think they’re not performing as well as they could, make sure you choose your words carefully and give examples to show them exactly what they could improve on. 

Being too generic and saying “you’re not doing as well as you could be” isn’t enough to guide them; you need to show them in which areas you think this is the case.

If you are going to give negative feedback such as this, first make sure that it is definitely warranted, and secondly, always counteract a negative with a positive. So, if an employee isn’t hitting their targets as consistently as they used to, you can mention this and give a few examples of when this was the case, but balance it up with a positive remark. This could be explaining how they acted as a mentor to a junior employee very well and you would like them to repeat that process in the future if they’re also in agreement. 

Check out this infographic which outlines the process when talking about an area which could be improved.


Source - https://blog.jpabusiness.com.au/blog/the-5-step-performance-review-infographic

Don’t Make The Appraisal About The Business

Sure, appraisals are beneficial for businesses as well as employees, but a staff development review is called that because of the word “staff” in the title! This means the review is about the employee and it’s their chance to talk about anything they want to discuss and also help to identify an improvement plan/training plan/give praise where praise is due. 

By talking about business figures, productivity and how a new product is doing, you’re taking the focus away from where it should be and the employee won’t benefit. In the end, neither will the business either. 

Avoid Gossiping or Talking About Other Employees 

It’s important to remember that appraisals are supposed to be confidential and that means no talking about other employees, even if you’re giving examples of something that particular employee did well. For example, if you’re telling the employee having their appraisal that they’ve consistently hit their targets and saying “well done”, don’t say “Karen from sales isn’t hitting their targets” or mention other employees who might not be doing as well, or indeed, who may be exceeding targets. 

By talking about other employees, even just in passing, you’re breaking confidentiality and you’re also inadvertently fuelling office gossip at the same time. If an employee has a problem with a colleague, they are able to talk about this, but there is a difference between reporting a grievance and simply gossiping for the sake of it.

You should also avoid the appraisal discussing going off-topic and discussing other subjects which have no relevance to the meeting.

Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep

If you’re pulling together an action plan and an employee has mentioned that they would like to go on a particular training course, don’t agree to this as part of their plan if you’re not sure it’s going to be funded or it’s not possible. Only agree to things which are possible and don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Employees will lose trust in the appraisal process pretty quickly if it’s full of empty promises, considering it to be a waste of time. It’s also going to detrimentally affect morale if you’re always telling employees they can do something, only to let them down when it comes to the crunch. 

Make Sure You Read Last Year’s Review 

Before conducting a review, make sure you have read over the details of what was discussed at last year’s review. By going in there and asking what was discussed you’re showing that you’re not really invested in the process, and in that case, the employe is going to wonder why they should be invested in it either!

All you need to do is spend ten minutes reading over the discussion notes and action plan and working out whether any of the issues are still pertinent or whether they should be left in the past, as per the first suggestion in this section.  

The Best Set up For an Appraisal

A little earlier we mentioned that you can avoid the negative connotations attached to appraisals by going for a more informal feel to the meeting. So, how can you create the best set up for the appraisal to take place?

It really depends upon the space you have and whether you have availability to use another space, rather than sitting around the meeting room seating and having a formal meeting atmosphere. If you have booths, you could easily use these but you would need to make sure that nobody is sitting in the booth next door and listening to what is being discussed. Appraisals are confidential meetings and this would therefore be a breach of that confidentiality and extremely unprofessional.  

If you have a breakout space it may be possible to book time within this space and ask employees not to use it during this time. For instance, you could say that during the hours of 1pm to 4pm, the breakout space isn’t available due to staff appraisals taking place. This would allow employees to sit in a more relaxed space and discuss anything pertinent to their appraisal, without perhaps feeling under pressure around the modern boardroom tables

Again, it really comes down to what space you have, but even if you do have to sit in the meeting rooms, here are a few things to bear in mind, to ensure that your appraisals have the right kind of feel and allow everyone to be comfortable and open to discussion.

  • Ensure the space is comfortable - It goes without saying that everyone needs to be comfortable in order to avoid distractions. Make sure the chairs are comfortable and supportive and that there isn’t an acre of space between the manager and employee. You can easily sit in a coffee shop style arrangement, e.g. two chairs with a low table between you, or even to one side of you, so you can lean on something as you’re scribbling notes. 
  • Cut out distractions - Make sure the space isn’t packed with distractions, such as excessive noise, and make sure that the room isn’t too hot or too cold. This ensures that attention remains on the meeting at hand. Mesh chairs are a good choice for these reviews, as they allow the air to circulate and keep everyone comfortable. 
  • Offer refreshments - Have refreshments at hand, such as tea, coffee, and water, to ensure everyone is comfortable, and also to avoid the meeting feeling too formal. You could easily have an appraisal over a coffee, lowering the formal feel and perhaps allowing the employee to feel like they can open up and discuss things more easily. 
  • Choose the right time of day - An employee is not going to be in the best frame of mind to have an appraisal just before they go home for the day, and they’re probably not going to be keen to have it as soon as they walk to their executive desks in the morning either. Mid-morning is a good choice, because this gets it out of the way, so to speak, and avoids the employee building up tension unnecessarily. 

The Importance of Creating an Action Plan

During the appraisal, an action plan needs to be created. This is the aims which have been decided upon during the meeting, with a timeframe, method, and also noting down who is responsible. 

For instance, if one of the key points in the action plan is that the employee is going to go on first aid training, the action plan could say the following:

  • Action: Employee to attend a first aid training course
  • Timescale: Within 3 months
  • Responsible person: Manager to book employee onto the training course 

By doing this, something solid is actually coming out of the meeting and it’s not simply a discussion that doesn’t go anywhere. Of course, the employee also needs to agree to everything in the action plan and it needs to be signed by both the manager and the employee. A copy of the action plan should be given to the employee, along with typed up notes from the appraisal at a later date. A copy of this should also go into the employee’s personal file. 

Most companies require the notes of the appraisal to be signed by both the manager and the employee and in this case you would simply need to explain that you’re going to take notes, that these will be typed up into the correct format and the employee will be asked to sign them at a later date, keeping a copy of themselves. 

Of course, if the employee notices at some point during the year that an action point on the plan hasn’t come to fruition, e.g. the manager never booked them onto the first aid course and the three months’ deadline has passed, they are then able to bring this up with their manager and ensure the action plan point occurs before the next review.

Check out this video which highlights the final aims of any appraisal. 

What are Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?

A little earlier we mentioned KPIs, or key performance indicators. We now need to discuss what these are briefly and why they might be useful. 

Some businesses don’t use KPIs, and it’s really a personal choice, but they are something which many other businesses like to utilise. KPIs aren’t just something which can be used in appraisals, as they’re used in business performance in general. They’re basically mechanisms which can be measured and will then give you an idea of how something is doing, or how successful something is.

KPIs aren’t going to fit into every appraisal situation, and in some cases, they can add pressure to a situation. For instance, you might set a KPI for an employee to reach a certain sales target by a specific time. That will certainly boost productivity, but you also need to think carefully about what it might do to morale. For that reason, use KPIs carefully and ensure that the mechanism for measurement you use isn’t unrealistic. 

If you’re going to use KPIs in your appraisals, you need to make sure that you set them for everyone. It’s not fair to have KPIs in place for some employee and not others. In that case, they may feel like they’re being unfairly targeted during the appraisal around the boardroom chairs and may feel like they’re on work probation of some kind. 

If you have various different generations within your workplace, e.g. millennials and baby boomers, you also need to be careful that you approach appraisals fairly for all staff members. If you add KPIs for millennials but not for older members of staff, the younger staff may feel singled out, and vice versa. 


And there we have it. You now know everything you need to know about appraisals and how to ensure that the sigma which still exists for staff sat at their office desks is banished way from your staff development review program. 

Focusing on positivity is vital, and if you can do that, you’ll ensure that all staff members see appraisals as something useful, rather than being a waste of time or something to be fearful of. Of course, this also comes down to having specific and professional training for managers conducting appraisals in the first place.

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