This essay attempts to look at the purpose of the performance appraisal, its implementation, and its meaning in the organisational context. Some common methods of appraisal are examined and their implications for appraisee perceived fairness discussed. Labour process theory’s conception of appraisal as an artefact of management control is included for the doubt it casts over the any appraisal ever being truly fair.
More recent appraisal formats such as peer-appraisal and 360-degree appraisal provide a partial response to the charge of management hegemony. Ultimately framed within wage effort bargain they however cannot transcend the control of management. Appraisal may be, in some instances, perceived as fair. It is argued that perceived fairness depends on employees’ acceptance of management’s prerogative to manage them.
Fairness is a relative concept much like goodness. One can only know something is good by knowing and comparing something that is bad. For the employee, appraisal can be fair if they compare it with something less fair. Equally, appraisal can be unfair if it is compared to something more fair. Consistency over time and population in appraisal practice is thus necessary for the appraisal procedure to be perceived as fair.
The purposes of performance appraisal include: determining merit pay, collecting information about employee competence, communicating organisational objectives, setting individual goals, determining promotion prospects, justifying dismissal of under-performers, and motivating employees among many others
The general classification is of ‘judge and counsellor’ (Sisson ; Storey, 1999) and broadly speaking this can be said to be relevant.
The appraisals’ purpose is to judge contribution to the organisation and counsel greater contribution to the organisation. Whilst it has been held that the roles of judgement and counsel conflict, in the above conception we can see that judgment breeds counsel and counsel breeds judgement.
To explain this point it is useful to consider the management by objectives (MBO) basis of performance appraisal. In an MBO system, the employee is judged in comparison with performance targets agreed during the previous appraisal. Essentially, counselling aspects become the basis on which to assess future performance. The employee and manager, given the shortcomings over the past period, ‘agree’ on targets on which to subsequently evaluate the employee.
A major reported advantage of this kind of appraisal is the role of employee voice in agreeing on developmental and performance objectives. Perceived fairness under such a method is expected by some writers to be high. Such a perspective is however somewhat naï¿½ve, the true role of employee voice in the appraisal process is likely to be limited as they will be aware of management expectations of continuous improvement. In support of such a proposition the County Natwest study reported in Bach (2000) showed that branch managers felt objectives were communicated from head office and that the appraisal process served only a legitimising role.
If MBO based appraisal procedures are unfair, on what other basis should the employee be judged/counselled?
Psychologists have shown that humans naturally conceive others in the form of personality traits or characteristics. Certain traits are certainly appropriate to certain roles in organisations. For example in research, traits such as inquisitiveness, tenacity, and precision would be valuable; in human resource management, traits such as sociability, sensitivity, and realism would be valuable.
For these reasons appraisals have had a tendency to attempt to assess traits in individuals. The advantage of basing appraisals on traits are; in judgement, rewarding those whose characteristics are most conducive to effectiveness in their role; and in counsel, identifying traits that the employee has and more advanced roles where those traits are appropriate.
Traits are however difficult to define, the subjective view of the appraiser may determine the meaning of each trait. Traits even once defined are very difficult to identify in individuals as they may manifest in very different ways. This is compounded by the problems of definition, leading to severe risks of procedural and distributive injustice (Flint, 1999). Potentially, the employee perceives the appraisal as entirely arbitrary in judgement and pointless in counsel as traits are not easily defined or identified due to the subjectivity issues discussed above. Perceived fairness in the trait based method appraisal is more conspicuously absent than in even the MBO based appraisal.
Appraisal based on behaviours has been seen as a more objective and fair method. Behaviour encompasses both the manifestation of traits and achievement of objectives in context. Behavioural systems also incorporate comparison between an ideal behaviour and the employee’s actual behaviour. This should result in greater objectivity on the part of the appraiser, as each employee will be evaluated against the same criteria, unlike in trait or MBO approaches. Counselling also, should be seen as more productive as desired behaviours can be clearly articulated allowing methods of producing these behaviours to be devised.
Could behaviour based appraisals be perceived fair?
In some instances perhaps, contingent however on how the behaviours are determined, specified, and monitored. Certain organisations, reported in the Harvard Business Review (Grote, 2000), design their appraisals around behaviours collectively agreed between management and employees.
In contrast to the assumptions of the above discussion that labour and management both gain through the appraisal process, labour process theorists have seen the appraisal as a method for eliciting employee compliance with management objectives, (Newton ; Findlay 1999). This is purportedly achieved as the appraisal process encourages employees to perceive themselves in terms of management’s perspective, rewarding adherence to and punishing deviance from apparently rational criteria. Empirical support for this kind of perspective can be found in Coates’ (2000) study of appraisal in a trust hospital.
“CareCo’s new apparatus of control could be argued to lead to a more pernicious and coercive pattern of management for employees, through the direct attempt to manage meaning, identity and sexuality. Physical performance appears to be lost.” (Coates, 2000:conclusion1)
In reference to behavioural norms on which to base judgement and counsel, Newton and Findlay’s (1999) analysis of Townley’s (1993) (distorted) Foucaldian power effects is instructive. They note how a university distributed the publication list of an academic who had had a ‘particularly successful year’ and how this became the behavioural norm. The use of an outlier is argued to exemplify the labour process perspective.
“But of course, if you want to maximise employee output, you set outliers as your model performance, not norms, so that in true labour process theory terms, you try to squeeze the last drop of surplus from your labour.” (Newton ; Findlay, 1999: 49)
The labour process perspective successfully undermines the neutral perception of appraisal.
Do peer-appraisal procedures and 360-degree appraisals redress the power imbalance and unfairness of supervisor only appraisal?
In peer-appraisal employees are judged by their team mates. The people work together most of the time so they have a better understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The perceived fairness of peer-appraisal may be high as the information on performance and development is coming from those with which the employee readily associates and is from a variety of sources.
In 360-degree appraisal superiors, subordinates and occasionally customers or suppliers all appraise the employee. This method gives a rounded picture of performance and should contribute to an employees understanding of how various constituencies perceive them. Perceived fairness in 360-degree appraisal is likely to be higher than in other methods, this may be undermined if there are conflicting reports of performance however.
Both peer appraisal and 360-degree feedback tend to be conducted on management prescribed bases of performance. The participatory element is extended beyond the appraisee and out into the environment. This serves to deepen the legitimisation of management control and decision-making. The superior only appraisal may be more biased towards management than either peer- or 360- appraisal, however the contention of the labour process theorists is that the artefact of appraisal is the control mechanism. For as long as management rhetoric shapes the formulation of appraisals, they will be inherently fairer to management’s interests than to those of employees.
This essay has tried to show how appraisal fairness is dependent on appraisee subjectivity. It has shown how certain methods of appraisal can appear to the employee as fair. Further, an attempt has been made to briefly outline the argument against appraisals being a power neutral instrument of rational management. Modern developments in appraisal techniques have been shown to enhance perceived fairness whilst at the same time reinforcing the validity of management’s control.
Bach, S., & Siison, K. eds (2000) ‘Personnel management: a comprehensive guide to theory and practice.’ Oxford: Blackwell Business
Coates, G. (2000) ‘Experiencing performance appraisal in a trust hospital’ Electronic journal of sociology, Vol 5, No.1: http://www.sociology.org/content/vol005.001/coates.html, accessed 18-03-02
Flint, D. (1999) ‘The role of organizational justice in multi-source performance appraisal: theory-based applications and directions for research, Human resource management review, Vol 9 No. 1: 1-22
Grote, D. (2000) ‘Performance appraisal reappraised’ Harvard business review, Vol 78 No. 1:21
Newton, T., ; Findlay, P. (1999) ‘Playing god? The performance of appraisal.’ Human resource management journal, Vol 6 No. 3: 42-58
Sisson, K., ; Storey, J. (2000) ‘The realities of human resource management: managing the employment relationship.’ Buckingham: OUP
1 The source, ‘Electronic Journal of Sociology’, unfortunately does not provide page numbers