The last quarter of the year is the time when many organisations start to plan for – or even kick off – their annual round of performance reviews. It can be a challenging and frustrating time for HR. Managers often have to be pursued relentlessly to put appraisal dates in their diaries and don’t always understand why they should make it a priority. And of course there’s the inevitable fall-out from appraisals that don’t go well, when disgruntled employees come knocking on HR’s door to dispute feedback they’ve been given or push back against decisions that have been made about pay or training.

With careful planning and preparation, however, it is possible to make performance management relatively pain-free. So what can HR do to set the process up for success and make sure the organisation reaps the benefits of the (hopefully) high value conversations between managers and their teams?

1. Help managers (and employees) understand why it matters

For a hard-pressed manager, the prospect of having to fit a whole series of appraisals in amongst an already heavy workload can be daunting. It’s not hard to understand why it’s a job that often gets pushed to the bottom of the list. Performance reviews are scheduled – and then cancelled when other priorities take over. Or time pressures mean that appraisals end up being rushed, box-ticking affairs rather than the quality conversations they are intended to be. Part of the problem is that managers can’t always see how it will benefit the business, or themselves, and that tends to rub off on their teams. Doing some groundwork with participants before the process kicks off will help HR build understanding and support. For managers, communication should emphasis the business benefits (retention, motivation, engagement, development) – as well as how appraisals can be a valuable tool to help improve effectiveness, productivity and enthusiasm across the organisation. For employees, the focus may be more on providing an opportunity for them to provide feedback on their role, talk through development needs or discuss longer-term career plans or aspirations.

2. Make sure managers are equipped with the right skills

Some managers seem to be born communicators, others struggle with the concept of talking about performance or giving constructive feedback, and may even shy away completely from tackling difficult issues that really need to be discussed. It’s often easier to push poor performance under the carpet than it is to have a frank and honest conversation to unearth what’s going wrong – especially where reviewers are nervous they may stray into disciplinary type conversations. Short skills development workshops can help to build skill levels and confidence – and remind managers that they need to listen as much as they need to speak as well as when to call on HR for support. If this isn’t feasible, an alternative might be to provide some guidance, helpful tips and conversation starters on your intranet. Some HR software systems let you include your own guides within the appraisal forms, which helps ensure that all participants understand the purpose of the review, and the kind of outcomes you are looking for.

3. Encourage a focus on strengths and opportunities for growth

Research suggests that appraisals can often turn out to be a negative experience for the employee on the receiving end. They leave the meeting feeling that all the good things they’ve done throughout the year have been ignored, while the one area where they didn’t do so well dominated the conversation. Appraisal conversations will be more inspiring, effective experiences all round if managers are encouraged to focus on strengths. This doesn’t mean ignoring serious under-performance or glaring capability gaps. Rather it’s about helping managers see that identifying what people are really good at – and finding ways for them to do more of it – is more effective than trying to ‘fix’ what they are not so good at.

4. Emphasise the importance of on-going communication

Feedback is for life, not just for Christmas, is one of the key performance management messages HR can help to convey. The formal, annual appraisal does, of course, provide a valuable opportunity to look back at what’s been achieved, to assess what learning and development may be needed and to set stretching goals for the year ahead. But employees need regular on-going, just-in-time feedback too. Managers need to be encouraged to arrange regular check-ins with their teams so they can make sure everything is on track and deal with any niggling issues before they become bigger problems. Five minutes with people ‘in the moment’, either to offer praise for a job well done or coaching on how something could have been tackled differently, is often more valuable than the formal annual conversation, where it can be hard to remember concrete examples of what’s gone well or badly.

5. Let technology take the strain

Appraisals generate a mass of useful data that HR can extract and feed into succession planning, training plans and workforce development strategies. They are a mine of valuable information about people’s aspirations, competencies and skills gaps, which can help to inform business decisions about everything from recruitment to resourcing. But information that is trapped in paper or digital forms is probably worse than useless. You know the data is potentially useful – but don’t have the time to extract, collate and benefit from it.

A good HR software system can support the performance management process by helping to make it more transparent, consistent and streamlined for everyone involved. It will also provide a central, easily accessible place where key points from appraisal conversations can be extracted, analysed and used by HR to inform key people-related initiatives.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.