Making the Grade: The Elements of an Effective Performance Appraisal

Performance appraisals generate a great deal of anxiety and suspicion. Anecdotal evidence suggests that both employees and managers perceive performance appraisals as achieving a rare synthesis of ubiquity, futility and inevitability (Johnson, 2004, p. 83). Although some apprehension at the thought of being formally evaluated is understandable, the unfortunate negative connotations surrounding performance appraisals are due to a misunderstanding of their purpose and outdated or inappropriate processes. When utilized properly, performance appraisals can be used to benefit individuals as well as the library organization by highlighting needed improvements in goal setting, training opportunities and more efficient use of human resources. In order for a performance appraisal to be a useful, effective and positive experience, six basic elements must be present.

1. A Clear Appraisal Process

“The importance of employee involvement in appraisal cannot be overestimated” (Goulding & Harrison, 1997).

Employers should make the performance appraisal process as transparent as possible. Familiarity with the process helps to alleviate anxiety and to increase the effectiveness of any tool that is used. Secrecy and ambiguity can foster mistrust between a supervisor and employees, and suggests that the purpose of the performance appraisal is to “catch” the employee in a mistake and dole out punishments. Free access to the forms, questions and style associated with the process should be granted to all employees. Employees should have the opportunity to provide input in formatting the evaluation and restructuring the process in order to ensure that the standards for success are both objective and attainable. Involving employees in the appraisal process generates an understanding of its true purpose and encourages willing participation.

2. Standards Must Be Objective and Equally Applied

“When employees find themselves being evaluated by managers whom they know have broken the rules, the entire review process is little more than a charade” (Boyd, 2005, p. 32).

It is critical that performance standards be the same for all levels of employees. Library managers should be the first to demonstrate adherence to library policy as a sign of acceptance of accountability.

Goulding and Harrison (1997) point out that management by objectives allows for measurable standards to be set which are not subject to the personal opinions of the appraiser. Objective standards prevent appraisers from drawing on an employee’s previous performance appraisals, whether good or bad, to assess the present. Predetermining objectives for every job title and employee helps to ensure that appraisers are properly trained in performance appraisal techniques. Appraisers need to feel that they are being held to and evaluated according to fair and equitable standards.

3. The Appraisal Must Be a Review

“I don’t think there should be any surprises documented in a performance evaluation–if someone did something that could have been done better in some way, I’d be a crummy manager if I surprised them with that news six months–or even six days–after the fact.” (Smith, 2005, p. 18)

Nothing that is discussed in the appraisal should be new to the employee. Saving problems and issues until an end of the year review wastes the opportunity to address and resolve these issues at their inception in a much less confrontational manner. Any issues or compliments that have been raised during the year should be documented and should become a part of the appraisal process. According to Holcomb (2006), “supervisors who keep their employees informed of their performance as the year progresses help to eliminate the fear of the unknown” (p. 572). Providing continuous feedback, rather than a single nerve-wracking session, highlights the performance partnership between manager and employee. Consistent feedback also provides employees the chance for continuous improvement, and regular communication contributes to a positive work environment.

4. The Appraisal Must Be a Tool for Development

“The most obvious reason for appraising an individual’s performance is to secure its improvement” (Goulding & Harrison, 1997, ¶ 9).

The appraisal should be treated as a chance for the employee (and the organization) to review the year and make plans for positive changes. It should not be treated as a formal criticism session or day of reckoning. The appraiser should ask the employee how they feel about their own performance, how they like the job and what opportunities for advancement or training they would like to pursue. Goulding and Harrison stress the benefits of developmental (geared toward positive feedback and change) versus evaluative (geared toward criticism and punishment) performance appraisal to employee growth, success and retention. Non-combative performance appraisals in which employees are held up to objective standards and past performance rather than the performance of others is critical in ensuring that appraisals remain objective and non-threatening.

5. The Appraisal Must Allow for Employee Feedback

“What is too often missing is the manager’s open ear — listening for instances in which the organization or business is getting in the way of an employee doing a good job” (Boyd, 2005, p. 34).

In a well-rounded and healthy organization, the appraiser should ask for employee feedback both on their own performance and that of the organization. Employees are not working in a vacuum, and one of the major criticisms about performance appraisals is that they do not usually take into account the ways in which environment affects employee performance (Johnson, 2004).

It is important that performance appraisals are used as an evaluative tool in context rather than in an artificial realm in which employees are solely to blame for problems. The organization itself can benefit greatly from self-appraisal – Smith (2005) characterizes appraisals as a chance to brainstorm about ways to better accomplish the goals of the organization.

6. The Appraisal Must Include an Action Plan

“…the credibility of the appraisal process hinges on the library’s readiness to see through its commitments” (Goulding & Harrison, 1997, ¶ 32).

Any actions agreed upon during the appraisal process, whether for additional training, a raise or promotion, or disciplinary action, should be followed through on as soon as possible. An action discussed during performance appraisals, especially rewards, should only be offered as a result of improved performance, and never as an empty promise attempting to motivate an employee for the future. The appraisal is not fully complete until both the manager and the employees have followed through on all of the elements that have been discussed as part of the process. A manager that does not follow through on promises will be perceived by employees as not taking their own recommendations or the needs of staff seriously.

It is important that the appraiser be aware of any budgetary or time constraints to avoid promising something to the employee that cannot be delivered. Making promises that cannot be delivered seriously damages a manager’s credibility.

Performance appraisals are important tools. Libraries risk underutilizing performance appraisal tools by limiting them to critical evaluations of individual performance. By incorporating clear appraisal processes, objective and equal standards, continuous communication, developmental goals, feedback and follow-through, performance appraisals can become catalysts for positive change and growth both for employees and organizations. The positive effects of constructive feedback are numerous, and provide employees with an important source of personal and professional satisfaction. The annual performance evaluation process rests in the belief that people want to do a good job. (Holcomb, 2006, p. 570).


Boyd, M. 2005. Juanita’s paintings: a manager’s personal ethics and performance reviews. Library Administration & Management, 19, 31-35.

Goulding, A., Harrison, K. 1997. Performance appraisal in public libraries. New Library World, 98, 275-280.

Holcomb, J. 2006. The annual performance evaluation: necessary evil or golden opportunity? [Review of the book How to Make Performance Evaluations Really Work: A Step by Step Guide Complete with Sample Words, Phrases, Forms and Pitfalls to Avoid]. Law Library Journal, 98, 569-574.

Johnson, B. 2004. The case of performance appraisal: Deming versus EEOC. Library Administration and Management, 18, 83-86.

Smith, S. D. 2005. Sally in Libraryland. Illinois Library Association Reporter, 23, 18-19.