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Updated on October 21, 2012
Would you like to replace the computer with your boss during appraisal?
Would you like to replace the computer with your boss during appraisal?


It’s that time of the year again, time for the heart palpitations, the sweaty palms and all the anxious questions: Will I get a larger raise than last year? Will that last little mistake I made ruin my rating for the entire year? Does she recognize how much I have improved? Is he really out to get me?

Whether your boss emigrated from heaven or hell or somewhere in between, anticipating your annual performance review or appraisal is probably stressful, anxious or even anguishing. The reasons for this have become abundantly clear to me over my more than thirty years as a management consultant:

1. Good or bad, from heaven or from hell, bosses almost universally hate doing performance appraisal. They look at it as one of the crosses they must bear and do it only because they are required to do it. Because they hate to do it and most bosses have not been properly trained to do it the right way, many bosses do it the wrong way, with the employee being the victim of the process.

2. The performance review, as brief and as bad as it may be, is often the only time during the year that the boss talks to the employee about his performance, except to shout at or ridiculed the employee for mistakes he has made. Thus the employee may have no idea what to expect from the boss’s rating or appraisal and is often surprised or even shocked at the appraisal results.

3. Bosses from heaven sometimes make mistakes in managing their people. Bosses from hell are frequently terrible in managing their people. Performance appraisal is a key part of managing people. It stands to reason that if the boss is bad at managing his people, he or she will be much less than perfect in doing performance appraisal.

Employees are quite justified in having up-set stomachs in anticipating an up-coming performance review and in needing a stiff drink after going through the process because many bosses find it extremely difficult to do performance appraisal fairly and effectively enough to have a positive impact on the employee’s performance, as opposed to destroying his morale. In fact, some bosses find it impossible.

To survive and even benefit from the process of performance appraisal, regardless of the kind of boss the employee has, he or she must start with the realization of certain basic facts about bosses and performance appraisal:

1. Performance appraisal, at its most basic, is feedback given by the supervisor to the employee on the nature and quality of his or her performance over some period of time-usually the past year. But, to be effective and have positive impact on the employee’s performance, appraisal should entail much more-setting performance objectives and counseling the employee on performance improvement and helping the employee to accomplish his or her career objectives. The problem is the boss may not know how to do any of these things and, therefore, none of these things may take place.

2. Even a very basic appraisal of the employee’s performance-be it done fairly or unfairly-is frequently not done. What happens, instead, is an evaluation of the employee’s traits or character. When the appraisal system used rates such factors as, “the extent to which the employee is knowledgeable”; “the extent to which the employee is honest or trustable”, the system is evaluating the employee, not his or her performance results. Such systems are often called, traits-based or employee characteristics-based and are preferred by many bosses, especially those from hell, because they are easy for the boss to use. These types of systems allow the boss to make subjective judgments about the employee-“I think she is hard-working” or “I think he has no ambition”-without having to use any evidence or back-up to support his judgment. The employee, under these types of systems, is at a distinct disadvantage because they can have no defense against the boss’s judgments. The employee would have the same difficulty as a student trying to convince his professor that he deserves an A- in a course, as opposed to a B+.

3. Results-based appraisal systems have the boss look at the performance results of the employee and measure it either against a pre-set performance standard or against the performance results of other employees. These kinds of systems force the boss to be more objective in appraising the employee because the boss must look at objective evidence or indicators of how well the employee has performed, not just his subjective perceptions of the employee. The employee comes equipped with the same objective evidence and, therefore, can better defend him or herself against unfair assessments from the boss.

4. The results of the boss’s appraisal of the employee, in most organizations, go straight into the employee’s permanent records in the human resources department and stays there. The consequences of the appraisal can be dire for the career of the employee. While a positive evaluation may not guarantee career advancement, a negative rating could have the effect of destroying an employee’s career. The human resource files of the employee will probably be investigated if the employee applies for another job or promotion within the same organization. A negative appraisal will stick out like a sore thumb.

So, hopefully, we have made our case: performance appraisal is extremely important to the employment status and career of the employee and, yet, whether the boss is good or bad, from heaven or hell, the employee can often be victimized by the appraisal process. But what can the powerless employee do against the all-powerful boss? The only thing the powerless employee can do is to open his mouth and passively taken in whatever the powerful boss shovels in. Right? COMPLETELY WRONG! First of all many (perhaps most) bosses are not powerful at all when it comes to managing people, particularly performance appraisal, because they do not know what they are doing. Second, employees do not have to be passive and powerless. They need to become powerful by acquiring the proper insights and knowledge to survive the appraisal process, regardless of what kind of boss they have. The following is presented to employees to make them more powerful in surviving the appraisal process.

1. Prepare and know thyself: Never walk into an appraisal session cold and totally unprepared. In most organizations that have formal appraisal systems, the process occurs at a specific time of the year-either at the hiring anniversary of the employee or at some set time for all employees to be evaluated. Several days prior to the event, employees should examine how their performance has really been over the past year. This examination should be an honest one, looking at any successes and failures and mistakes that might have been made. Examine if these successes and mistakes came to the attention of the boss. Did the boss give any indicators of how he or she felt about your performance during the year? Your realistic assessment of your own performance will enable you to properly respond to the boss if his assessment of your performance is unrealistic.

2. Remember how many bosses manage-by negative exception : Management by negative exception means that the boss always looks for and quickly detects the negative or mistakes in the employee’s performance much more so than the positive. This means that any mistake made by the employee, no matter how minor and especially in the last weeks or days before appraisal, can have an undue negative coloring of the boss’s appraisal. The employee must be equipped with evidence and arguments regarding the positive side of his performance to counter the management-by-negative –exception inclinations of the boss.

3. Listen, then ask questions: The employee should go into the appraisal session with an open mind and open attitude. He or she should listen carefully to what the boss says and not listen to his own reaction. Then, he or she should ask questions for clarity and for further details. For instance, ask why the boss rated the employee in certain areas; why, exactly, did he say the employee needed improvement in certain areas. The employee should even ask he or she was rated positively in certain areas so that the employee will know what to keep doing in the right way.

4. Defend yourself, but don’t shot yourself in the foot: If it becomes clear that the boss is inaccurate or has miss-judged certain areas of your performance, don’t take it like a dead and silent corpse-defend yourself. Present your boss with your evidence or rebuttal. Remember, your future career might be at stake. BUT, do not commit suicide. Try not to create an adversarial relationship or worsen one that may already exist between you and the boss. Instead, try to persuade, convince or even cajole, while maintaining your self-respect. If things have gotten off on the wrong foot, make certain you do your part to get them back on the right foot by the end of the appraisal session, even if the boss does not know how to.

If the boss from heaven or hell does not know how to handle the employee in a fair and effective way in the appraisal process, the employee has to learn how to handle him or herself.

snapshots of a faded past


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