I recently had a meeting with an employee about his performance appraisal. His first words were, “I know this is about documenting everything for the lawyers in case you want to fire me.” As a long time L&D guy, this statement made my heart sink. At the same time, I did need to accept his reality that far too often, the performance appraisal process has taken on a life of its own. When the process becomes about forms, dates and how to access the online system, then we in the L&D profession have led the charge of simplicity up the hill toward idiocrasy.

As my employee left my office, the words of Mike Smith, my first boss and mentor, came to mind. The performance appraisal process, at its core, is a spark for a conversation between the supervisor and employee about what is working and what is not. Sometimes in HR and L&D, we forget the goal and purpose, and we look toward improving the process, making access simpler, correlating the data toward useful computations, and building a system for tracking goals and progress. What is lost in the mix is the purpose behind the tool.

When done right, the employee and supervisor leave the performance appraisal process with steps toward improvement and a new energy and passion to become better. My snarky review of most of the online and newly rolled out systems is that they are more flash than substance and result in creating a system for documenting, assessing and comparing.


Recently, I tossed out my entire program and returned to a one-page table of simple discussion topics. We held training sessions with our managers and promoted blasphemy among the new generation of L&D techniques: We instructed our supervisors to arrive with a blank form and a pencil!

We want our managers to engage in a guided discussion about performance and ways to improve. We don’t want boxes checked, goals entered under the deadline and progress fudged to make everyone feel better. We want dialogue. We want a give and take conversation, and we want to recognize and strategize on real areas of improvement.

In the end, our documented system was messy and sometimes difficult to follow, with arrows and handwritten notes. However, employees reported an increase in satisfaction with the process, so much that one department even asked if it could add a mid-year check to the process! Our employees began to own the process and use it as a tool. What could be better than that?

Based on that experience, here are some tips for creating and customizing your system to encourage dialogue and innovation:

  • Throw out sterile questions, and focus only on attributes that are job-related. (Our old system rated how safe our accounts payable clerks were, since we used the same form for office and warehouse staff.)
  • Discourage pre-work. It’s difficult to have a conversation when the conclusion is handed to you typed and pre-printed.
  • Train, train, train. Teach supervisors how to have a conversation, how to use open-ended questions, and how to decrease personal defense mechanisms.
  • Stop generating statistical comparisons. If your system reports an average score, it is most likely mathematically and statistically wrong. Most rating systems are based on attribute data (scores of 1 through 5). You cannot report an average score of 4.5! The statistics are flawed and meaningless; throw them out, and focus on dialogue and outcome.

I’ve been in HR for over 20 years, and I’ve yet to have a performance appraisal be the single tool that helped me in any litigation. More often, the supervisor wrote a great evaluation of the employee and then wanted to fire him three months later!

Performance appraisals are the most vital tool we have for improving employee performance. But when they’re standardized and sanitized, they lose their impact and simply become the task to complete so HR stops asking. Make them meaningful and purposeful. Make them about the dialogue and not about the paperwork. Let’s make HR right again!