Does your appraisal process help or hinder?

I’ve not worked for a company yet that didn’t have some form of annual employee appraisal process, usually undertaken by the line manager. These appraisals usually are a one-size-fits-all affair where a generic set of questions that may or may not be relevant to anyone in a programming department are paid lip service once, maybe twice, a year and then mostly forgotten about.

Now, wouldn’t a set of questions and metrics that were really relevant to your role actually perform a useful part of your professional development? If the appraisal process were to be transformed from an infrequent pain in the neck into a regular process of support and guidance, wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing that both appraiser and appraisee would look forward to?

So the first question is “why is the programming department so different to most other departments in a typical company?”. First, they’re always doing something that they’ve not done before. Sure, they’ve done other pieces of work like it before, but not like it enough to just be able to turn the handle and have another project clank off the end of the assembly line. Second, what they’re working on isn’t normally under their control. It’s pretty common to plan to be working on project X over the next couple of months, only for the priorities to shift and so you end up working on projects Y and Z instead. So, if you set delivering project X to be a target in someone’s appraisal (it certainly fits the usual S.M.A.R.T. criteria), it had better be with the understanding of all parties that there are likely to be countless circumstances under which that developer can have done a stellar job and still not have delivered that project.

Then we come to the really awkward question: “OK clever clogs, what should the appraisal process be?”. I suppose the cop out answer is that it’s down to you and whatever suits your organisation, but there really ought to be some part of it that is general enough to be useful to enough people. What’s more, I’m about to embark on this process with our own HR department so I’ll let you know how I get on and what we learn through the process. My plan at this initial stage is to think through and identify the core functions that each person in our team performs and to come up with something based around the Drefus model of skill acquisition to quantify how well they are performing that function. If nothing else, I do like the language involved by grading someone as being a novice through to an expert, rather than the dreaded 1-5 or below average through to excellent rankings I’ve seen in previous appraisal forms, it’s a lot less judgemental. At this stage, about the only criteria for success I have is whether appraisals become something to look forward to rather than a chore. The other benefits I’m hoping for, like better support for an individual’s professional development, are much harder to quantify and not something we are measuring with our current process.

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