‘I Attempted To Preface Appraisals With A Quotation From The Great Gatsby’

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As appraisal season approaches, a partner at a top London law firm reveals what it’s like to conduct them

Nightmare appraisals are well known to both appraisees and appraisers, and probably no-where better represented than David Brent’s hilarious appraisal of Keith in The Office (see below).

The problems with appraisals are numerous. If one works with people for a whole year, one does not expect them to store up either their praise or criticism for an hour-long annual appraisal. Try that in a marriage…

Attempts to inform the discussion by providing appraisees with massive amounts of information on “Key Performance Indicators” really doesn’t help very much. It is after all true that you “get what you measure”, and equally true that not everything that counts is countable, and not everything that is countable counts. If conducted properly, appraisals should reveal no surprises to anybody with matters that would have been dealt with during the year.

In practice, what happens is that the appraisee is taken endlessly through the list of things they have done well (or quite well), while all the time waiting for the dreaded “but”.

That is when the appraisal starts, of course. Sometimes the negative element of appraisals seems overplayed, but it is hard to know what to do about it when the HR department are demanding written reports to help them with the annual pay review, the papering up of potential partnership applications or the short walk to the tumbrel.

A couple of years ago I attempted to preface appraisals with a quotation from The Great Gatsby which was based on Jay Gatsby’s smile:

“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. He had faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.

“He had understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

To me that should be the kicking off point for any appraisal if subjects have not discussed matters between each other during the year.

I would candidly admit that I think appraisals are much more useful and valuable for junior staff where numbers-based items and coaching can be very much more easily imparted than with people who you may have appraised for 20 years or more. I have always rather assumed that as with golf or bridge one’s partners are doing their best unless they actively inform you that they aren’t.

But ultimately what exists between employer and employee is a relationship. Necessarily dynamic it needs and deserves constant attention: praise where praise is due, constructive criticism and coaching, the setting of a good example, and the learning from it. Thus appraisals can become a happy reflection on lessons learned, and progress achieved.

The writer is a partner at a leading London law firm. To read more from him, click here