HRBPTT – Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles of Holding Effective Performance Appraisals

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest HR Business Partner Think Tank (HRBPTT) held on Tuesday 20th November 2012 hosted by Ashurst’s Paul Wray (HR Manager), titled ‘Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles of Holding Effective Performance Appraisals’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR professionals from leading UK and other international businesses.  Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

For employees, and often managers, the prospect of conducting and participating in performance appraisals can be a very daunting experience. However, the way they are delivered and structured can play an integral part in reaching the desired outcome; reinforcing solid performers and redirecting the weaker ones.

Performance reviews should be a wrap-up of conversations that happen throughout the year. They are essentially a great opportunity to thank employees for their contribution, as well as discuss their development plan going forward. It’s therefore important to encourage managers to sit down at least quarterly with employees to enable the yearly appraisal to accurately reflect the employee’s contribution to the businesses over the previous 12 months.

All too often, appraisal processes are seen to be ‘forced’ onto the business by HR. Senior managers, right up to Board level, have to take ownership and be able to see the benefits and the impact on the bottom line. HR should be the facilitators of the performance appraisal process, not the owners. It is however HR’s job to ensure manager’s have the tools to hold difficult conversations, objectively review staff and go into appraisals with a positive and informed attitude. This can be achieved by holding moderation meetings with all managers prior to performance appraisals; also ensuring that grading is fair across all departments.

Remote working highlights the importance of having regular conversations and Skype calls, particularly in organisations with employees on international assignments. This population typically have high engagement levels and really value the interaction with their managers. However, if the employees aren’t used to working in an office, avoid holding performance appraisals in this environment as it can make them feel uncomfortable. If flexible working is a relatively new concept in your organisation, speak to someone who has already gone through the changes to ascertain how they maintained regular communication and structured their appraisals.

What happens after the review? Ensure managers know that they are dealing with both ends of the spectrum. Put a plan in place with smart objectives for the manager and the employee. A robust personal development plan and an objective form is always useful, but make sure it isn’t too clunky and that it gets completed.

Forced distribution – love it or hate it?

How do you decide who goes into the top bracket, especially if the team is generally high-performing? For positively skewed, normal distribution curves; discuss each bracket in turn around a table to settle on a majority vote. Each manager and HR Business Partner should be able to see the initial ratings before they meet; if there are any unusual patterns (i.e. an underperforming team all scoring relatively highly), challenge the manager before the meeting and encourage them to think about why they have presented those grades. Be sure on what each individual has contributed, by encouraging regular manager-employee conversations throughout the year.

If the number of grievances increases due to the forced distribution model, ensure employees know exactly what they are being benchmarked against. Is this a definition, or against other employees’ performance? If it is a project environment where managers aren’t working closely with the employee, set the scene that ‘this is where I think you lie, but we will be comparing you to other employees’.

How do you measure potential?

The classic approach is the nine or 16 box model. Use current performance as an indication around potential, but also include factors such as openness to mobility (particularly in international organisations), how they have moved within the organisation, leadership capability, ability to build business relationships, etc.

Performance Appraisal ‘Gems’:

Role-playing – Encourage line managers role-play with other line managers. Be someone ‘awkward’, have a difficult conversation with them in front of other HR Business Partners. Give them advice and coach them prior to the actual conversation, taking note of their body language.

Advanced training – Provide further training on difficult conversations, how to give bad news and deciphering between feedback and criticism. Give managers the opportunity to practice difficult conversations using actors during workshops or offer them links to podcast training whereby they can tune in whilst away from the office

Re-write appraisal descriptors – Make performance grades more meaningful and write them in plain language. Lose the HR jargon.


  • It is fine to keep it simple.  Not everything needs to be ‘innovative’
  • Use meaningful language in performance appraisals and be specific around grades and ratings. Get managers and employees to understand it.
  • Everything revolves around ‘good conversations’. Invest in training around difficult conversations, particularly for managers where it doesn’t come naturally to them. Yes, there is a process to follow, but if the conversation is right, people will be more engaged
  • Harness the feedback from managers, and think constructively. Look at line manager capabilities, and develop toolkits
  • Ensure high-potentials know that they are the future of the business. Have good conversations with them too, not just the poor-performers
  • Don’t make performance appraisals an HR process – they need to be sold by the business and leaders
  • The culture of the business is critical, whether that is in the UK, or internationally.


Oasis HR

Written by , Network Driven HR Recruitment

Oasis HR is a multi-award winning HR Recruitment Agency based in London that delivers Contingency and Search services within the Human Resource and Business Change Markets. Our client base encompasses all industry sectors and we have a proven track record of delivering permanent, interim and temporary professionals at all levels across all HR disciplines. From a £20k HR Administrator to a £200k HR Director, Oasis HR is well placed to identify, approach and secure the best available talent in the market

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