Appraisals: friend, not foe

Poor appraisals are more than just a waste of time – they’re a missed opportunity. By Nick Jefferson

Ask any partner what they think of appraisals and their response is likely to be a ‘harrumph’ at best. Appraisals are seen as deeply bureaucratic and as having the capacity to take up large quantities of partners’ time, with the consequent (but often overlooked) financial implications.

Ask any HR person what they think of appraisals and their response will not be greatly different. HR has the unenviable task of making the system work: fixing up the meetings; distributing the forms; ensuring those forms are completed (amid much chasing); collating all of the relevant information; synthesising and making a précis of it; and then, more often than not, heading along to the appraisal meeting itself.

And the end product of all this well-intentioned labour? A process that typically has very little credibility with fee-earners. Time and again fee-earners tell us that, even though they care deeply about assessment and development, they have no faith in their firms’ ability to deliver either. They tend to see appraisals as pointless annual head-patting exercises, where each side struggles to remember what on earth has happened over the last 12 months.

So why is it all going wrong? There are several factors.

First, most firms do not readily make the connection between appraisals and the bottom line. They should. In the way that any business tool should be costed accurately, the appraisal system should be reviewed for time and financial efficacy. On investigation, most firms are staggered by the partner time involved in the typical annual appraisal. Multiply that figure by the number of fee-earners each partner supervises and it rises to even more dramatic heights. And that is to say nothing of the HR time involved.

The financial implications do not end there. A sense of ‘absence of development/progress’ is often quoted (to us as external consultants, if not to firms themselves) as a key factor in decisions to leave firms. The resultant recruitment fees, the lost partner and HR time in finding a replacement and the learning curve of the new recruit all need to be factored in too. And even for those who do not leave, general demotivation and low morale – twin products of poor appraisals – lead to a further, and admittedly difficult to quantify, cost in terms of productivity, relations with clients and the like.

That is not to say that partners should not be acutely and deeply involved in appraising their fee-earners. They absolutely need to be – just in a sensible, time-efficient and bureaucracy-free way. It can be done.

Second, the frequency of appraisals (or evaluation of some sort) needs to increase. At first glance, that might seem to conflict with the need to keep partner involvement down. However, a ‘little and often’ approach usually results in a net reduction of partner time overall. It also has two happy by-products: an increased relevance of content for both appraiser and appraisee, and a more accurate record of poor performance when it comes to ‘managing out’.

Third, firms have to make a much greater effort to make appraisals just as much about looking forward as looking back. This does not mean dreaming up woolly, vague objectives that no one will look at until the next appraisal. Instead, firms – for their own sake as well as that of employees – need to set about agreeing specific, measurable and relevant objectives that are both readily achievable and visible by the employee.

It is necessary to run an appraisal system in a firm heaving with sophisticated, intelligent individuals. The key is to make sure that it works – for all parties, including the finance director.

Nick Jefferson is a director at Couraud Consulting, specialists in people strategy for law firms