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The doublespeak of job appraisals

By | Dec 13th 2010 | 6 min read

By Mark Mutahi

Employee performance appraisals have come to be viewed as a conspiracy by employers to make them feel like they have been contributing nothing to the organisation.

This is so that the employees do not ask for bonuses and other performance perks. It is not known when the practice started but most employees who dread this annual ritual agree that whoever started it must have been a sadist in the mould of reality TV show judges who are paid to inflict pain. Or a bored dentist looking for new methods of torture.

To some, performance appraisals bring back school memories of being summoned to the principal’s office when caning was the norm. Few things have as much ability to give migraines and ulcers as appraisals.

It is no wonder then that most employees feel about evaluations the same way they feel about their mothers-in-law — lots of unpleasantness, hate and trepidation.

This is probably because while appraisals can be used in the motivation of members of staff and improve poor performance while recognising good performance, they can also be used to do the exact opposite.

Getting negatively reviewed, especially towards the end of the year, is universally known to be one of the most effective ways of spoiling an employee’s mood for Christmas. It doesn’t help matters that there usually are no trauma counselling centres or even support groups set up to deal with the post-appraisal depression.

To make employee performance appraisals less unpleasant, some organisations have decided to rename the exercise a ‘career development discussion’. But that’s like calling the apprehension a man feels the moment his wife says ‘we need to talk’ to a ‘chit-chat over tea’ when we all know it is like facing a ruthless parliamentary committee that has every intention of flexing its muscles and making a grown man cry like a wet baby.

Interestingly, in some cases it is not just the employees who dread the exercise but the appraisers as well, be they managers, HR personnel or supervisors. In such cases, it is because the appraiser is worrying about a lot of eventualities that may or may not come to pass when they meet with the employee or employees they are reviewing: What if the employee breaks down and cries after their faults and weaknesses are pointed out? Should I get some extra napkins? What if they go berserk and start breaking glass? What if they decide to jump out of the window to the ground 20 floors below? Is it time to perhaps install some window grilling?

But appraisals are not all about those wearing cuff links appraising their juniors. In some progressive organisations, juniors get to appraise their bosses as well. The only drawback with this is that the chances of an honest opinion are as rare as snow in the Sahara.

This is mainly due to the fear of reprisals and victimisation. What happens instead is that the bosses get to be told what they want to hear since sycophancy has proved time and again to be an effective job security strategy.

However, it doesn’t mean that for those organisations where the bosses don’t get to be appraised by their juniors, that the juniors have no way of communicating what they truly think of their bosses. There is the option of suggestions boxes and anonymous letters where freedom of expression is well and liberally exercised.

There is also the juvenile option of writing what they think of their bosses on the walls of toilet walls in the organisation.

The biggest criticism levelled against appraisers though is their tendency to sugar-coat and engage in doublespeak. For instance, when they fill out the appraisal form and say you are multi-lingual, they just mean that they have discovered you have the ability to curse in more than one language.

When they say that you are a workaholic, they mean that the strained relationships on the domestic front is forcing you to stay late in the office pretending to work while all you want is to escape the home life.

When they say you are loyal, they mean that no other organisation is interested in poaching you. By saying that you are sociable, that is code for the fact that they have discovered that you drink a lot and that the office is usually your first stop from the pub.

Being referred to as a good networker means that now your bosses know you are always online and you only become productive when the Internet server is down.

When they say you are career-minded, they mean to say you have no friends and that your looks have predisposed you to involuntary celibacy. And by saying that you possess leadership qualities, the appraiser is just looking for a polite way to communicate the fact that you have a prominent potbelly.

On the plus side, appraisals have been known to encourage high performance. For instance, when an employee is seen doing a good job and receiving kudos for it, other employees may try to emulate them so that they may get the same commendations too.

But there is the danger that this could backfire if the employees with poor reviews gang up to eliminate the high achiever for making the employer realise they are holding back in terms of productivity.

And with appraisals having proved to encourage high performance, there are some industries and sectors where it would herald great improvements if performance assessments were introduced and regularly carried out.

An example is the matatu industry. This of course would have to be done by independent individuals and bodies rather than peers.

Knowing the sector, peers would give each other a high rating for bad conduct and vice versa. Because the industry motto is to flout traffic rules at every available opportunity, not overtaking dangerously and overlapping would attract a poor rating and possible dismissal from employment. Touts would also get a poor rating for dressing smartly and polite handling of passengers.

When it comes to other public personalities like politicians, the list of criteria by which they can be assessed is even longer.

They range from how many controversies they have generated over the past year to how many press conferences they have called to deny something they did or said.

They could also be evaluated on the basis of what percentage increase in newspaper sales can be attributed to them every time they were in the news.

In the case of trade unionists, evaluation would be easy and not require much labour. The criteria of evaluation would range from how many strike threats they have issued in the past 12 months, and how fierce and menacing they looked when facing the camera warning employers and the government against falling back on salary increment promises. Or even the number of times they have walked out of salary negotiations in a huff.

Talent goes hand in hand with notoriety and as entertainers, it is their duty to society to be constantly in the news and thus keep reminding us mere mortals what dull lives we lead.

There are many other people we would like to appraise too. Relatives, the neighbour’s children, spouses, traffic cops and even landlords. This is because it is the nature of human beings to evaluate and assess those we work with, do business with, live with or just happen to know.

All in a bid to gauge their relative worth to us. It is thus good to know that no one has a problem with being evaluated; results of the assessment are where the problem usually lies with a tendency to vehemently disagree with the parts that portray you in bad light.

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