Karen Greaves: Agile Performance Appraisals – Do we need a number?

On the first day of the Scrum Gathering we kicked off with Karen Greaves presenting a talk on Performance Appraisals. As can be expected, the room was packed to capacity as many in the audience were eager to listen in and join the discussion on this thorny issue. After all, performance appraisals are that process we all love to hate. And with good reason too, many in the audience shared stories of negative experiences they have had with performance appraisals and there were only but a few positive experiences shared. The anxiety, discomfort and disappointment experienced around performance appraisals came both from those who were giving them as well as those who were receiving them. What was interesting to see were stats on how few CEO’s actually believed that performance appraisals were an accurate measure of individuals’ performance in their organization. Also, less than 50% of HR actually believe that performance appraisals in their current form are accurate.

Karen then shared her experience of how she felt about performance appraisals over the years in her career. When she started off working for Microsoft she had a very positive experience receiving an outstanding performance appraisal (and the relevant increase) for her hard work and effort. With that great motivation she maintained her hard work but the following year she received a lower rating much to her disappointment. When she did some investigation into why she might have received this low score, she was told that everyone gets a turn to have an outstanding rating, and she had already had her turn. Working at another company for a year and a half, she received neither a performance appraisal nor any increase. She didn’t mind the former, but was unhappy about the latter which led her to leave the employment of that company. In another company she had an outstanding employee whom she wanted to reward with the highest rating, however, her manager informed her that the company never awards that rating to anybody.

Karen explained how she was able to implement a fair performance appraisal system at Fundamo during the time when she was a development manager there. She explains that to do this she needed to gain support from her line manager as well as reach an agreement with HR. She was able to get both support from her manager as well as cooperation from HR by providing HR with the information they required. Her system started off with monthly 1-1 feedback sessions with each of her developers to continuously build the relationship and ensure that each person was always aware of how they were performing. This way no-one was ever surprised at the end of the year when they received their increase. She also eliminated the rating in the performance appraisal and made sure that the appraisal was delivered verbally, not through a letter.
However, HR required a number (as they always do), and she provided them with a number calculated based on each persons’ performance. She placed all her team members into one of three categories: the poor performers (which were very few), the average performers (which was the majority), and the superstars (which were also very few). However, this number was never disclosed to the team members as she felt it added nothing to the appraisal other than what she had already provided them with.

Based on that score, everyone was awarded their annual increase at the final appraisal. Although the final appraisal was nothing other than the monthly 1-1 meeting with the increase letter. In this way she managed to decouple the performance appraisal from the rating and increase based on a rating.

The discussion was interesting and thought provoking. The main thing that was highlighted is that there are some steps we can take to introduce changes in the performance appraisal process instead of suffering through them year after year. It requires some negotiations with the stakeholders, senior managers and HR being the main stakeholders. We can make changes by ensuring that we still provide the data that is essential in the HR process, but also reduce the pain and bureaucracy it has on our lives.

Written by: Nobukhosi Dlamini