Article In Brief:
- The Problem: Neither supervisors nor employees think that the current process for performance appraisals is working. While managers question the usefulness of appraisals, nonprofit staff do not feel their appraisals are constructive. After three years of a pandemic, employers and employees are re-evaluating all things work. This is an important time to re-create the performance appraisal process in your organization. The time to act is before an environment is created where appraisals get abandoned without an alternative.
- The Context: Appraisals are meant to create a constructive environment where employees are getting the feedback and coaching they need to grow and develop in their positions, while supervisors grow in confidence that they can build a constructive relationship with their staff to execute on the goals most important to their positions and support staff well-being. Without a mechanism for ongoing supervisor and employee engagement on performance, nonprofits will find it hard to meet their mission and annual goals.
- The Solution: Our author uses her experience as a trainer and coach with more than 2,000 managers, direct service staff, board members, and other volunteers to present a 6-pointed, human-centered approach that supervisors can use to fix the performance appraisal process so that it’s meeting the needs of the organization.
There’s a lot of debate currently about performance appraisals.
Some of this debate revolves around frequency: some supervisors think annual appraisals are useless and instead insist that there should be ongoing or quarterly check-ins. Others question the ultimate goal of performance appraisals. Some have even moved to simply using the performance appraisal process as a coaching opportunity rather than a performance evaluation.
However, a lot of the debate about this topic is due to the fact that employees do not feel performance appraisals are constructive, whether due to their occurrence in some sort of supervisory vacuum and/or the divide between job requirements and evaluator standards, among other issues.
The Challenges of Performance Appraisals
Of course, performance appraisals themselves are no easy task.
It can be incredibly difficult, for example, to conduct a meaningful appraisal of an employee you don’t meet with regularly and with whom you don’t have a real relationship in which feedback can be shared openly. Appraisals can become even more difficult in a remote environment when there is not regular contact between employees and supervisors.
And, supervisors themselves also dread performance appraisals when there are challenges with an employee. Sometimes performance challenges are a result of something the individual is or isn’t doing, and sometimes these challenges are a result of other issues in the working relationship between the employee and supervisor. In other cases, lack of organizational support for staff well-being and work-life balance may be a factor.
So, what can you do?
First off, if you are a supervisor, keep in mind that a performance appraisal is an important opportunity for you to improve your working relationship with your staff members. Ideally, the annual appraisal should be an opportunity to ensure that your direct reports know you value them and their contributions to the organization. Similarly, they should feel that you are invested in keeping them happy and retaining them on your team. This is something that should happen all year, but it is especially important during the annual appraisal.
Think of the performance appraisal as a time to jointly focus on goals for the coming year. It might also be a good opportunity to reflect on or plan for any professional development that might increase the employee’s organizational knowledge and ability to add value as well as meaningful learning that can keep them engaged.
And while this shouldn’t be the primary purpose of an appraisal, it’s also important to use the appraisal to clarify if there are any patterns of behavior or issues that may jeopardize the employee’s tenure with your organization in the coming year. In most cases, these conversations should happen in real time and not be saved for the annual appraisal, as this will only increase both employee and supervisor stress.
One of the best habits a supervisor can implement to counteract some of the difficulty of performance appraisals is to give themselves the gift of reflective time. That is, supervisors should ask themselves a series of questions before they start writing a staff member’s appraisal, ideally on a coffee date outside of the office.
Remember, conducting a performance appraisal with integrity takes time to think and reflect deeply. This is especially the case if you are a relatively new supervisor, who perhaps does not have experience reviewing peer or direct reports’ performance. But for current and new alike, your comfort level with appraisals will improve if you allow yourself time to consider the following six reflection prompts before writing an appraisal.
6-Point Pre-Appraisal Reflection for Supervisors
1. Rationale for Performance Appraisal
Different organizations conduct performance appraisals for different reasons. Some do it to engage staff and promote their interest in staying with the organization. Other organizations want to build stronger working relationships between supervisors and direct reports by letting them know supervisors see their strengths and will also constructively identify areas for growth and development.
In general, the purpose of the appraisal makes a significant difference in how you approach the conversation with the employee. It actually takes significantly more time and effort to conduct a thoughtful, employee-centered appraisal that supports a staff member’s growth within your organization than it does to carry out a perfunctory evaluation to satisfy a compliance requirement. As you might guess, the former can be helpful to employees, while the latter can feel like a waste of time for all involved parties.
Use your reflection on the appraisal’s purpose to not only frame what topics you address but also the ways in which you approach them.
2. Supervisor Attitude
As we are all probably too aware, supervisors are often very busy. Indeed, most jobs are not actually set up for successful supervision because there are a large body of other duties and tasks required in addition to staff oversight. Because of this, some supervisors resent the fact that performance evaluations take so much time. Others may feel ill-equipped to hold these discussions because they haven’t had the training to conduct an appraisal. Sometimes a supervisor simply isn’t prepared for the evaluation—possibly due to a lack of documentation or realizing they have to inform the employee of something that should have been communicated earlier. A supervisor might also worry that the appraisal will hurt their relationship with the employee, especially if the supervisor prefers to avoid conflict. In the most extreme cases, supervisors might also fear arguments or even that the employee might file a formal grievance after the meeting.
None of these reasons justify failing to conduct an evaluation. Instead, they should provide motivation to communicate much more regularly and hold (and document!) regular supervision meetings.
Before conducting a performance appraisal, you should make sure to consider your own attitudes, including those about both the appraisal and your employee. These sources of reflection might help you to consider your own personal biases when evaluating your interpretation and understanding of their performance. Your answers should also help you decide whether you need additional support for each person’s appraisal, including whether you should meet with your HR director for advice prior to the appraisal itself.
3. Employee Attitude
There are a number of reasons that employees might not look forward to performance appraisals. They might worry about being fired or being embarrassed by reprimands or how supervisors deliver feedback. Alternately, they might be frustrated at not getting feedback on their most important accomplishments or not understanding why they received low ratings in a particular area. They also might be disappointed at not getting a pay raise for the upcoming year.
Of course, to be able to reflect on the employee’s attitude, you must have a strong enough working relationship with your employee to know that they trust you going into the appraisal meeting.
4. Employee Training
It should come as no surprise that you cannot expect an employee to perform a job well if they have not received appropriate orientation and training. Of course, training must entail both initial training before they take the job as well as subsequent opportunities for learning and professional development. It is integral that employees have time during the workday to complete these trainings and are encouraged to do so by management. This also means that as supervisor, you should be well-versed in these trainings (and perhaps have completed them yourself) in case your reports have questions or want to talk further about professional development.
Remember, professional training, much like supervision, is an ongoing process. At the end of the day, it is unfair to expect employees to perform well if they have not been adequately trained.
5. Quality of Supervision
Similar to the previous point on training, you must consider how actively and constructively you have supervised your employees since their last performance evaluation. When supervision is done well and the employee is responsive, you should be clear about the status of this employee’s projects and weekly priorities, which should be addressed during regular weekly or bi-weekly check-ins.
This also means that you must teach employees how to respond appropriately when you ask about the status of projects or reports and be teachable yourself. That is, accept feedback if the employee expresses feeling micromanaged. Don’t just back off—discuss and negotiate what meets your expectations and respects the employee’s autonomy. A sign of a strong working relationship is an employee that readily comes to you for assistance when they encounter a challenge they can’t resolve on their own.
Many of these questions concern how well you have performed your own supervisory duties, having less to do with your employee’s actual performance.
The general rule of supervision is that your analysis of your employee’s performance should not come as a surprise. If you let them know that you see their strengths and give them ways to address areas of potential improvement, it will not only strengthen your relationship but also make the appraisal process much easier in the long run.
6. Finally, Employee Performance
Only after you consider all five other factors should you begin to reflect on the employee’s actual performance of their assigned job duties. During a constructive appraisal, you should focus on the results of this individual’s work.
However, performance extends beyond results. It’s also important to consider whether the employee treats organizational stakeholders with appropriate professionalism as well as with compassion, high dignity, fairness, and respect. This includes clients, co-workers (including support staff), volunteers, and management staff. You should also consider whether the employee is constructive in bringing forward concerns and issues to improve the organization’s work and/or workplace.
Remember, these should be the last questions you ask during your reflection. Essentially, the previous questions must demonstrate that you have provided your employee with the best possible context for their performance. If this is not the case, then you cannot adequately analyze their performance with integrity. It is only after making sure they have a supportive and work-conducive environment that you can evaluate the performance fairly.
Purpose of Performance Appraisals
It’s important that performance issues aren’t allowed to get to the level of dire consequences without prior intervention. If supervisors go into the appraisal process thinking they need to terminate an employee, it makes the entire system fraught with anxiety—both for the supervisor and employees. Decisions on termination should be made long before an annual evaluation. If not, the appraisal’s potential for constructive feedback, growth, and development is hard to achieve. Ideally, employees should go into their appraisals looking forward to a constructive conversation in which they are open to feedback.
A great way to design a constructive, forward-focused appraisal process is to invite employee feedback into the process. There are multiple tools for this: surveys, focus groups, 1:1 interviews with staff, or employee committees that report feedback to HR and management.
As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to work with your management colleagues to craft an appraisal process that is human-centered and doesn’t create anxiety. At the end of the day, you want to invite buy-in into your organization’s mission, vision, and programs, encouraging your employees to see opportunities for themselves in your organization long-term.
Please comment below if you have other thoughts that might improve the annual appraisal process!
 Since 2015, this debate appears to have trickled (like many things) from the for-profit to the nonprofit world, including 2016 study noting the all-time high dissatisfaction with performance appraisals. Several outlets have published articles both supporting and criticizing performance appraisals, although most seem to suggest that employers need more useful metrics for evaluation.
Becky Schueller has three decades of experience working with national, urban, and rural nonprofits as well as community groups, native nations, and small businesses. She provides online and in-person training, consulting, and coaching. Becky has trained more than 2,000 managers, direct service staff, board members, and other volunteers in the past five years. She has 30 years of management, leadership, and supervisory experience with nonprofits. Becky has served multiple community agencies in Chicago and Minnesota in Board, staff, committee, volunteer, and consultant roles. She worked for the Chicago Foundation for Women, supervised an all-Cambodian refugee staff, and served at the YMCA of the USA. Becky’s most recent long-term role was as an Executive Director for a $2.5M youth and family services agency in Bemidji, MN from 2001-2017, where she supervised the agency management team. Becky is also a former Northwest Minnesota Continuum of Care Coordinator, a role that included supporting housing and homeless service providers.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
Becky Schueller says
Thanks for your feedback, David and Ruth. I think doing appraisals well is even more important in an environment in which there may not be funds for regular raises. It makes it even more important to have a healthy working environment in which supervisors can give employees feedback on the difference their work makes. Lots of research supports that that it is “feeling they make a difference,” “feeling their boss and organization care about them” that makes a significant impact on staff well-being on the job. And, it is up to each nonprofit, native nation, or local unit of government to determine the purpose for which appraisals will be used and how they want appraisals handled so that they strengthen the working relationship and help employees focus on goals for the coming year.
David M. Patt says
The purpose of performance appraisals is to evaluate the quality of employee work and to specify how employees can do better jobs. They are not conducted to make employees feel appreciated or recognized as important. The problem is that they are often confrontational, focus on negatives, and are used to deny people raises and promotions. Employees frequently feel they’ve been scolded and criticized (sometimes unfairly). It would be better if performance appraisals were conducted in ways that both supervisors and employees would think were helpful.
Robin Rosner says
I totally agree. I am recently retired, and this was the case at our organization. Being non profit there was no money to work with and so in many ways if there was any numerical scoring for various work traits or qualities as akin to retail work, the goal was for a supervisor to ensure the number didn’t go over a certain mark because that would require a higher increase in wage based on a scale. In short the reviews rarely made a difference beyond creating some stress and irritation. Even as a supervisor myself I had some resistance to pointing out any issues because it was very difficult to find people for the challenging positions. Too often the higher ups are clueless as to the really great jobs their staff members are doing. But what difference does it make when there are no funds to adequately compensate them.