Wrongs of praise by Louise Hadland, Shoosmiths

This article was originally featured as an opinion in the December 2017 issue of Briefing. To read the issue in full, download Briefing.

Back in the 1990s, when Jennifer Aniston established the Rachel haircut and John Travolta was strutting his stuff in Pulp Fiction, I was sweating over my MBA thesis. Choosing the witty title of ‘The value of appraisal for support staff’ set me on a research journey that led to the conclusion that appraisals really weren’t worth the paper they were written on (clearly described in far more academic and weighty words in the submitted paper).

The last 20-plus years have done nothing to alter my view. But then, little about the process has changed to prompt me to revise my opinion. Some cosmetic work around competencies and smart-looking online solutions have given a more current ‘look and feel’, but the basic precept of a manager sitting down infrequently (perhaps once or twice a year) to discuss performance with the individuals in her or his team has not changed.

Much has been written about the reluctance of baby boomer managers to address performance issues, or provide the kind of feedback millennials apparently crave. And what better excuse to park a perceived difficult conversation than to ‘save it’ for that person’s annual appraisal – no matter how many months away that might be?

On the other hand, how many of these appraisals focus on what happened in the last month (sometimes week) and often on the negative aspects, completely ignoring a great contribution over the 11 previous months?

At Shoosmiths we determined the annual appraisal added little value to the business. Managers dislike the ritual, staff even less, and HR had the thankless task of constantly nagging to make sure a bureaucratic box could be ticked that all were complete. Even the most cursory assessment of time spent on appraisals vs return on the effort found them wanting.

In April 2016 we replaced appraisals with regular one-to-one meetings – some weekly, some monthly, some less structured. Regular meetings allow objective/task setting and monitoring to be current, clearly relevant and fast-paced, matching our business environment, rather than getting ‘batched’ each year.

The world is no longer on an annual cycle in any business aspect, and the management process becomes future-focused rather than backwardlooking. Most importantly, it is tailored to meet individual need so that support and development is a timely intervention, not a post-error punishment. There is no room for a one-size-fitsall approach for any people process in today’s more complex and multi-role law firm.

In our new review world, there is still a printable document for paper diehards, but it’s no more than an aide memoire to remind both parties of things that might usefully be discussed. It’s not a necessity. The process is about time spent together and the quality of the conversation – not the paperwork. To date it has been well received by the vast majority of staff and managers, and it feels good to be able to deliver a flexible, effective solution to the business that removes an unwanted, under-valued, laborious appraisal process. As Vincent said in Pulp Fiction: “They call that Royale with cheese …”

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