Carole J. Clarke, MA, VetMB, CVPM, MRCVS
Formal feedback and development processes really help you to manage staff, particularly in a busy and fast-moving environment like veterinary practice. The process will give you the information to drive the practice forward with everyone in their ideal roles, and is an essential opportunity to set goals for your staff, and yourself. It's not easy, but setting a structure in place will help you maintain momentum.
Before You Start
In order to make any judgment or give feedback on someone's performance, you need to know
What you are trying to achieve overall--your practice and team goals and values
How you are expecting the individual employee or colleague to contribute to this--day to day and possibly strategically
How the individual is actually doing in comparison with your, and their expectations
How you would like to see them improve in all aspects of their work and contribution to practice success
How you and the business can help them to improve and develop their skills and activities within the practice
How you are going to measure this improvement
The individual's learning style and what tends to motivate them
It soon becomes clear that if you do not a have a clear idea of your own plans and strategic objectives, trying to appraise someone will be extremely difficult, and this is often why appraisals are a waste of time or have limited impact in practice. Either the boss doesn't really know what the employee does all day (and it shows) or expectations are unrealistic on either side, or the employee is scored against some arbitrary criteria with no specific action plan for the future, which can be very demotivating.
So the first thing to do is to ensure you have a good overall plan for the business, that it is written down, regularly updated and communicated to everyone, and that you can use this to guide you through the appraisal.
The second thing you need is a job description, set of responsibilities or job requirements for the individual against which you can gauge their effectiveness.
Next you need someone who can carry out the appraisal. This person should:
Have the authority to make decisions
Understand the needs of the business intimately
Understand and directly observe the employee day to day
Have active listening skills
Have a flexible and creative attitude
Have a clear approach to action planning
If that's you--fine--but probably it's not. Perhaps there isn't one individual who can meet all these criteria--and that's the difficulty in appraising.
In our practice we always have three people at an appraisal--the appraisee, the person who works with the appraisee and who the appraisee reports to, and a partner in the business. This three-way meeting can, if conducted well, be very useful and positive for all three and result in real discussion of ideas and positive action. The aim is to have all the informed people who can make a difference in the room for the appraisal, together with all the supporting material that will help them give accurate feedback and develop an agreed action plan for the appraisee.
Appraise without authority and nothing will change. Appraise without full knowledge of the appraisee and the appraisee will feel their time wasted. In both cases, serious damage can occur to the working relationship.
If you're thinking you don't have time for this approach--just compare your own time investment with that of the employee over a year--you'll soon see it in perspective.
Getting staff on board is important--and discussing your aims and how you hope to achieve them is a start. Always start appraisals with the senior staff first, including yourself! Remember that many staff will have no experience of appraisal or may have had damaging appraisals in the past--they may be suspicious of your underlying motives or sudden change in character--"It was nice when nobody interfered with our jobs". Getting your staff to help design the paperwork is very helpful--see what they put on the agenda--it may surprise you! Take time to get the system right, but once started, maintain the momentum and don't leave people waiting for their promised appraisals. Standards such as Investors in People in the UK are very useful to maintain impetus and to ensure you don't let things slip. Read as much as you can about appraising staff and take from each book or article those aspects which fit into your own culture and ideals. Never copy someone else's documentation, or use an off the shelf package.
Simple Appraisal Techniques and Interviews
Most appraisals are conducted with some sort of agenda, which should be circulated first. The agenda should include
Achievements and improvements and changes to the job
Training and development activities and what difference they have made
Any difficulties or issues which have not been satisfactorily resolved to date
An individual action plan covering job activities, skills and personal development
A business action plan--communication, development and system issues to address as a result of the appraisal
For each item, the impact of the change on the individual and the business must be discussed.
Having the agenda prepared as a form with lots of white space for notes is helpful, and we encourage appraisees to make notes and let us have them just before the appraisal so we can ensure everything is discussed. The appraisers can fill in a separate agenda.
Feedback on performance is a vital part of the appraisal, unless this is continuous and already carried out regularly as a separate exercise. There are a few golden rules on feedback which must be followed if appraisal is to be successful on both sides.
Feedback must be honest, objective and refer to activity and behaviour, and not to personality.
Feedback should never be a surprise. All negative feedback must be given to an employee at the time of poor performance or misdemeanour, and dealt with at the time. These incidents should not be brought up at an appraisal unless the behaviour is ongoing and requires further action. Positive feedback can be reiterated and celebrated.
Feedback must never be anonymous. There must always be an opportunity for the appraiser to talk through any feedback with the person offering it, as well as the appraiser.
Feedback should generally be accompanied by constructive comments and set in context.
As usual, planning is essential--the agenda should be prepared, feedback collected and copied to the appraisee ahead of time (a few days is ideal), the appraisers should have a good idea of what they wish to bring to the discussion, and time must be set aside for the appraisal session.
Appraisals must always be done at a pre-arranged time in the working day. Choose a day and time that is suitable for all participants, when there are no deadlines or other distractions or worries. The session must be private and free of interruptions, and should not be delayed or postponed at the last minute. How you set the room and chairs out is up to you, but we find a table useful for paperwork and for making notes. The advantage of having three people is that one can be the note-taker, either on paper or directly to a lap top which saves time.
Set aside at least an hour for an appraisal, and ensure you have discussed everything you need and given the appraisee an opportunity to add anything else for discussion.
360-degree Appraisal and Appraising the Boss
This is used routinely in our practice, but does require you to have the culture right first. The team must trust one another and there must be no blame culture. The strength of 360 degree appraisal is that issues of more importance to the team (as opposed to managers) will come into the open, and managers and bosses will see how their actions are perceived by people in different roles in the organisation.
Again, there should be no surprises, and generally there aren't, as managers usually know where their weak areas are--but feedback upwards does tend to put these issues into context and shows just what the effect of not addressing the issues can have on the team. In general, that can be enough to encourage change. Peer pressure is an underestimated force in the workplace and harnessing it in a constructive way to improve business and personal performance can be extremely powerful.
360 degree feedback should be managed carefully and questionnaires should be constructed after expert training and team discussion. In general, if questions are objective and unequivocal and refer only to specific behaviours, then the system will work well. Again, there is no place for comments on personality or behaviours unrelated to work or for anonymity.
When giving feedback, it is vital to be specific and for questions to be directly relevant to the business and to the appraisee. For that reason, it is best to devise your own questions on performance, based on industry standard ones if necessary and cutting out management jargon where necessary. Generalisations must be avoided, and personally I do not favour numerical or competitive scoring.
Linking to Reward
It is generally agreed that salary or bonus should not be linked to appraisal, and this does reduce the risk to individuals and encourage open discussion of strengths and weaknesses. Some organisations conduct salary or reward reviews a few months after appraisal, based on progress with the action plan. Others do not relate the two. This will be for the practice to decide, and will depend to some extent on what exactly motivates the workforce. Linked salary will strengthen the relationship between individual performance and financial reward. Not linking the two may be better for employees who see job satisfaction or team achievements as more important. There will, however, need to be a tie-in between salary and overall team or organisation performance if the practice is to encourage innovation and empowerment amongst its staff.
Dealing With Under Performance
First look in the mirror! Avoiding poor performance is usually a matter of facing issues at the time and dealing with them rather than letting things run on. Don't let niggles and annoying habits run on unchallenged--try and work out what the root issues are, break down the problem into behaviour components and talk about them. Many under-performers just have no idea what is really expected of them,--make sure your staff know what you are asking them to do and to what standard. Consistency of approach is key to success, and this includes your own attitude and job performance. If you are managing properly, poor performance is not an issue for appraisal unless the appraisee wishes to discuss it. Progress, however, is a useful topic for discussion. Consistently poor performance is a development, job design or disciplinary issue.
Team appraisal can be a very useful occasional exercise, particularly during periods of change or when reorganisation is planned. Make it fun and be open about it and you can learn a lot! Designing questionnaires and encouraging feedback can also be a team exercise, but is best done with the required result in mind.
Areas to consider in individual team strengths and weaknesses include:
How are your teams structured?
Is there sufficient intra- and inter-team communication?
Are there some informal teams you were not aware of?
What factors hold the team back from achieving what they want?
What factors help them be effective day to day?
A good team brainstorming session at work can be much more motivating than a 'team-building' social event outside the practice.