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Staff development through appraisal

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VOL: 97, ISSUE: 39, PAGE NO: 34

Jacqueline Wheeler, DMS, MSc, RGN, is a lecturer at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College

Appraisal is a means of assessing performance to make plans for correcting shortcomings, developing potential, and initiating training or effecting staff transfers and promotions. Recently there has been a change of emphasis regarding appraisals, resulting in a concentration on performance measured against previously agreed objectives, as opposed to subjective opinions expressed about personality (Torrington and Hall, 1991).

Reasons for appraisal systems

A comprehensive appraisal system can provide the basis for key managerial decisions relating to allocation of duties and responsibilities, pay, levels of supervision, promotions, training and development needs and terminating staff contracts. An appraisal system demonstrates management’s commitment to develop people in order to achieve business objectives. Regular reviews of people’s training and development needs should demonstrate an improvement in effectiveness. Meeting these criteria is necessary to achieve the Investors in People award, a government initiative (Mackenzie, 1998).

For the manager

Everyone makes assessments about the performance of others, but these judgements can be unfair. Senior nurses can write trite comments such as ‘needs to improve her attitude’, which is a personal opinion that provides little concrete evidence of the nurse’s strengths and weaknesses, nor does it provide a plan for improvements.

A formal appraisal system allows managers to ensure an individual’s abilities and energies are being used effectively (see box). Talking to staff about their aspirations as well as finding out about their performance can assist decision-making about who is ready for promotion and can identify skill shortages. It is an opportunity for managers to develop staff and enable the work to be done more effectively, all of which will ultimately ensure a better service to patients.

The appraisal system also sustains the hierarchy of authority by confirming the dependence of staff on those who manage them.

For the staff

Appraisal enables staff to become fully aware of what their superiors think of their job performance and what the immediate future holds in terms of their development. It is also an opportunity to discuss career prospects and obtain advice on the route to take.

Talking about the job and the work it involves can remind us why we wanted to do it in the first place. It gives nurses an idea of their worth and encourages them to develop their talents, while helping them over difficulties.

For the organisation

In large organisations an appraisal system is the only practical means of identifying the best staff in a way that is fair to all. Appraisals are carried out to ensure that the qualities and performance of each member of staff are documented and that staff needs, in terms of training and the broadening of experience, are met.

Establishing an appraisal system

A successful system should focus on the strengths and accomplishments of staff members, rather than their faults and failures. It must have the cooperation and input of staff and managers and must be constructive, with benefits for all. The appraisal system must be in line with corporate objectives and culture as well as being integrated with policies and practices for human resource planning, training and development and any legal requirements (Mullins, 1996).

To ensure appraisals are performed to the same standard throughout the organisation, appraisers need to be trained and a reasonable time must be allowed to undertake an appraisal.

The system needs to be monitored regularly to ensure that appraisals are being done properly and that action plans are actually carried out. It should also be modified to meet changing environmental influences or organisational needs.

For the system to be credible, it must include a formal procedure for appeal against any judgements.

Appeals should be made to a manager in a more senior position than the appraiser.

Frequency of appraisal

The frequency of appraisal is related to the nature of the organisation and the characteristics of the staff employed. More frequent appraisals may be appropriate for new or recently promoted nurses, or those whose past performance has not been up to the required standard. However, in the majority of schemes appraisals occur annually.

Drawbacks of appraisal systems

Managers often describe performance appraisals or annual reviews as one of the tasks they dislike most because they are time-consuming and involve a lot of documentation. But it is difficult to object to the notion of appraisal as a means of staff development in a service which depends on ongoing development for the delivery of safe, effective care.

Often a role development or promotion is agreed at the appraisal review, but if ambitious action plans are set for staff, spare capacity will be required to replace them when they have study leave. This can be difficult to organise in the current NHS climate, with its lack of funding and overstretched workforce.

Another problem associated with appraisal schemes is when the nurse’s performance cannot be measured easily, so that some other behaviour, such as time-keeping or a pleasant manner, is measured instead (the ‘halo’ effect).

There is a risk that people whose performance is more easily measured will benefit at the expense of those who carry out more difficult aspects of the nursing role. The result will be that an appraisal will be of little benefit to the individual and the overall performance of a department will suffer.

Benefits of an appraisal system

An effective appraisal scheme enhances the individual’s performance, creates consistency and maintains and improves the quality of the service provided. It is not merely a review of past performance but also an opportunity to look forward and assess the future needs of the individual and the organisation (Mullins, 1996).

Through appraisal, managers can discover the potential that exists within the organisation and instigate succession planning.

The documentation

With employees’ futures at stake, it is essential that appraisals are carried out as objectively and consistently as possible. There are arguments both for and against using a system of ticking particular boxes or marking an appropriate scale, just as there are for using a blank sheet of paper with adequate guidance. The two methods are usually combined, resulting in an assessment with scales to be ticked and supporting comments.

The main difficulty is often persuading those who write appraisal reports to make direct statements about shortcomings in nurses’ performance. Managers who dislike writing adverse comments on appraisal reports are usually also unable to offer day-to-day criticism and support to their juniors.

Nurses know what is expected of them at a clinical level and their job description should be used as a standard against which to measure their performance.

The most common practice is for a report to be written by the nurse’s immediate superior, who then conducts the appraisal interview. In this, the the nurse’s performance is discussed, with the manager giving praise or talking over problem areas as necessary.

Neither adverse comments nor outstanding performance should come as a complete surprise to the nurse, as appraisal is an ongoing process and it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that each member of staff is aware of their progress.

Following appraisal, the manager should be able to make recommendations for further training and development. The report is signed by both parties and countersigned by the superior’s own boss, who may also comment on the potential for future advancement. The documentation is then kept in the nurse’s personnel file.

Finally, remember that although there are no hard and fast rules for establishing rapport at appraisal interviews, most people will respond to some evidence that their appraiser has a genuine concern for them as individual human beings and that they are not being regarded as merely members of staff.

- Part one in this series, ‘How to delegate your way to a better working life’, appeared in Nursing Times on September 6. Part two, ‘Thinking your way to successful problem-solving’, appeared on September 13. Part three, ‘Getting to grips with writing reports’, was published last week.

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