The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Staff Appraisal

The formal appraisal system may be a necessary evil, although I note that its value is these days frequently questioned by both academics and management consultants. Informal appraisal is certainly much more effective, perhaps along the lines summarised in the book The One Minute Manager. This suggests that managers should give immediate feedback whenever they see good or bad work. Unfortunately too many managers give immediate feedback that is either always positive (and therefore dishonest) or always negative (which is debilitating). Colleagues quickly learn to appreciate the honesty of the manager who gives both sorts of feedback.

Formal appraisal is delivered within a structured system over which individual managers have only limited control. But it is worth making four important points.

First, the formal annual appraisal is essentially one-way communication. The process might begin with self-appraisal (although I have my doubts about the effectiveness of this approach) but it is essentially an opportunity for the appraiser to be honest about how the other person has appeared to them over the preceding period. The person being appraised might well feel that the appraiser is wrong, but that should lead to improved communication and other action in the next reporting period. There should be no question of the appraisal being ‘agreed’ by the person being appraised, or subject to any form of appeal.

It is sensible, however, to show draft appraisals to the person on whom you are reporting, for you might well have forgotten some achievement, or you might have expressed something in an upsetting way. But the report should nevertheless remain your honest assessment of the other person, in comparison to other civil servants.

Second, appraisals should lead to action, whether by way of improved communication between manager and managed, or changes to objectives and expectations, or further training and development.

Third, keep it simple!  No-one remembers the detail of an appraisal more than a few hours after reading it.  When I ran a small department, we categorised staff as very effective, effective or not effective, and this worked very well, especially if allowance was explicitly made for those who were in the process of gaining experience.

Fourth, it is better if appraisals are supplemented by ‘upward feedback’ or even ‘360 degree feedback’. There are several good systems that facilitate these processes but it must be stressed that they need to be carefully managed if they are not to do more harm than good.  They should certainly not amount to ‘upward appraisal’. Managers should want to know what messages their staff believe that they are receiving, in particular through the managers’ behaviour. But it is not for staff to tell managers whether the messages are appropriate, or whether the manager is regarded as doing a good job.  There may be some saints who would respond enthusiastically to criticism from inexperienced staff, but I fear that I and many others are not amongst them – at least until I have worked with my critics for a good long time.

Remember, too, that we all have different mixtures of strengths, experiences and weaknesses.  One or two weaknesses may be quite irrelevant in the current job, and should not be used to mark a person down.  Equally, it is often the case that a single weakness can be a major problem, and this needs to be spelt out and addressed.  Too many senior officials have reached their current positions despite being inexperienced or poor managers, simply because they score well when it comes to analytical ability and the like.  It would be much better for all concerned if such weaknesses could be addressed early in such careers, and regarded as an absolute bar to further progress.


Martin Stanley