Annual appraisals – similarities to a primary school prefectorial board election

The annual appraisal in an organisation is perhaps akin to the annual exams we all took in school, college and universities. It is easy to state that we understand the process but not one of us really accepts the results 100%. Yes, it’s true; none of us does.

There is a rigour I follow and the first step I take is to ensure I define expectations at the beginning of the year. As of last year, we are able to define objects up to the manager level. Over the years, I have found that every industry I have worked in (and there are many), every division, every level and more importantly every post can have expectations defined. And defined in both qualitative and quantitative terms. The challenge is to get managers at every level to understand that this can be done and educating them to do it! (Sorry Nike).

The second step is understanding if the appraiser has done a fair appraisal or not. I ensure every employee at SAGE knows that should they choose to dissent with their manager, the dissenting note will reach the CEO, to be read and acted upon. There are many who choose to use this path and a small (and shrinking number) still hesitate.

The third step is to tackle the awkward moments myself. If someone has done good work and yet can’t get a promotion, I have to know why. There are two awkward moments I encounter; the first is convincing supervisors that their recommendation of NOT giving a promotion is being overruled and the second is convincing the appraisee that he is NOT getting a promotion (even though his manager may have recommended one).

The fourth is to step back and review every decision made in the context of the company’s structure. This is where I remove anomalies that may have crept in. I once discovered a supervisor was being paid less than the person being supervised.

This year too I had my share of awkward moments but I could get across my message in a transparent manner. I ensured it was understood and that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

But there was something else that happened concurrently that gave me food for thought – my daughter’s school held a series of interviews to finalize candidates for the “Prefectorial Board”. The very first time I heard the term, I knew there was something wrong. A school has one, but one at the junior school level, meant trouble for many.  The process, the results and the aftermath gave me lots of food for thought. I can now understand why appraisals create angst for people and the similarities I see.

But first more about the selection process for the Prefectorial Board.

Step 1

A questionnaire and a list of positions were handed over to the 5th graders. They were to fill these at home (read: in the presence of their parents) and submit this to the class teacher in a week or so. I wondered how students could be evaluated on this…

Step 2

An interview was conducted by a selection of teachers; the class teacher wasn’t one of them. I began to think there was democracy and transparency…

Step 3

An interview with the principal followed by a couple of closed-door conversations and finally the list being quietly posted on the Notice Board.

Before the results were announced

This was the period of great speculation, of hope, of confidence and of course of the future once the person was appointed to a position. There was a lot of chatter but there were a few key themes that emerged.

Theme 1: the Know It All Parent

This was a group who could rattle off the name of every student who they believed was going to be appointed for a particular position.

Theme 2: the Martyr Parent

This was a group that stated that the highest position was not for their child; they acknowledged there were other kids more qualified. Some relied on illness skewing academic results or sporting results. They wore their martyrdom as a medal and stated that their kids had applied for “lesser” positions. My own assumption was they expected their child to be rewarded by the lesser position for the parent’s martyrdom.

Theme 3: the Cautious Parent

This was a small group who feared the unknown but were putting on a brave face of accepting whatever came their ward’s way. In their heart of hearts they wanted their child to win but still remained outwardly calm about any result that would come.

There were other themes that emerged and they were at best amusing and at worse completely irrelevant. There was a subset of the martyr parent group who stated openly that they didn’t let their ward apply simply because it was a waste of time. I was reminded about a fox in a vineyard…

The results were posted and as is always the case, there were many surprises. There were many themes that emerged

Many of the ‘sure-shots’ didn’t make any positions.

Kids that made many positions were hitherto unheard of.

Kids that joined the school in 5th grade, perhaps a few months ago were chosen over kids that had been in school since Kinder Garten.

Kids in general congratulated each other, I heard of only two who cried at their loss

Parents in turn started grouping themselves around themes.

Here are some of the groups I saw.

The Bribery Connection

This group firmly believed the principal or the teachers received bribes to favour children.

The Conspiracy Connection

This group firmly believed the school had a conspiracy against their wards for various reasons. A section of them believed that because they didn’t/couldn’t/didn’t want to devote sufficient time to “extra curricular” activities or pampered teachers, their wards were singled out.

The Rational Connection

This group distanced itself from the other two on moral grounds. They went about applying logic to the results. They believed the selection committee had erred and that the decision was more rash than rational.

The Rebel Connection

This group wanted to take “action”. The action I heard was from one extreme to the other. A section wanted to take a “delegation” to see the principal and “enquire” about the “selection process”. These were the “moderate” ones. The “extremists” wanted action. Since a lot of their chatter didn’t filter down to me, the themes remained unclear. But one that came through was to write a strong letter objecting to the selection process and demanding an explanation.

As I compare the two events I couldn’t help see similarities emerge. Here is what I see.

Similarities before the event:

The Know it Alls:

Employees make lists, mostly mental ones, where they list the people they think will get bonuses, promotions, or get thrown out. His or her own performance is bench marked with someone else. 80% of the time the performance and compensation is benchmarked within the company, 20% is benchmarked against people outside the company.

The parents in this group did the same. They had their own list of people “making the board.” They then benchmarked their own child against this list or others within the group.

The Martyrs:

Employees of this group have already “resigned” to their “fate”. If they haven’t made some targets, they have already figured out an answer why. The answer in itself could be far from reality but that doesn’t change what they have already thought about. Then comes the communication with the rest of their “friend” circle. These are the people they most often talk to in the office. The martyrdom gains traction in this small closed group.

Parents are the same way. It is impossible for every parent to know every child and know every parent of that child. The reasons are articulated in small “known” groups. They go to various lengths to communicate the list, the rationale for the selection and why their ward is making or not making a post. Again this is a small closed group.

The Cautious Ones

Employees in this group are cautiously optimistic of the outcome. They fear that some realities may overrule the outcome – targets that have almost been met, reporting that was almost on time, etc. They hope against hope that the worst will not happen but keep hoping that something else will happen; a miracle of sorts. They are the ones who don’t really protest when the results come. They knew it could go this way; they were hoping it wouldn’t.

Parents are similar in their approach. They have been told by others that their ward is a “sure-shot”. They are inwardly excited but don’t exhibit this openly. They keep low profiles until outcomes are firmly known. If the outcome is what they expected they rejoice, if the outcome isn’t, they are guarded with their reaction.

Similarities after the event

The Conspiracy Theorists

Employees that firmly believe the management is biased to a particular department or an individual manager fall into this group. They are sure that they or people in the group have been at the “receiving end” of a poor evaluation simply because there is a conspiracy against them. “These days the management only listens to…” is an oft-cited statement.

Parents of children who didn’t make any post are the vast majority of this group. They have a desperate need to find a reason why their ward didn’t make it. And the reason has to be external. “They only chose children of parents who paid hefty donations…”

The Rationalists

These are the ones who want to project their understanding of the situation. They have a rational explanation (completely different from reality that have no knowledge of). It is speculation at best and ridiculous at worst. They try to establish patterns that have no real logic and when they can’t, the senior management, or the HR department or all of them combined “are on weed” while working on the outcomes.

Parents want to find logic on the basis of which the selection was made. And they want that logic to prove why their child didn’t. When there isn’t any logic, the management “made a mistake”. And this mistake could be voluntary or induced.

The Rebels (looking for a cause?)

These are the employees who will whisper loud enough for everyone to listen. And these are the timid ones. The more extreme ones start revisiting their CVs and making calls to head-hunters. Job portals see increased hits as people scour for options. They try to induce other “sufferers” to join them in hunting for a job. Unscrupulous entities (companies, HR departments, head-hunters etc.) make hay in this chaos.

Parents try to find a way to lodge a protest and most times the protest is lodged with the known “listeners” in the group. The extreme ones start hunting for other schools.

I haven’t sat on the Prefectorial Selection Board of a school so I cannot comment on their process. I do however oversee the appraisal process of an organisation and hence can safely comment on this.

A good company should have two very important components in their appraisal process:

Transparency – this has many facets

Ensuring expectations are defined (ideally at the beginning of the year). This is not always possible. Even in a company this culture may not exist. It has to flow from the top downwards. The senior the manager the more clearly his role needs to be defined. Many companies rely on a Job Description. This can be a starting point but JDs by their very nature are ALL ENCOMPASSING. They cover every aspect of the job. However, in a particular year some aspects of the job may just never be done. This is where a short-term task list works very well.

Defining every parameter being evaluated. This too is not always possible. Some parameters are qualitative but the one thing I don’t believe that for some jobs quantitative parameters cannot be defined. I have heard many managers complain that they are unable to do any sort of quantitative analysis. My retort is “if it can’t be measured, it’s not being done.”

Training managers (appraisal process training). Managers are trained they are not born. The training comes from various sources. The simplest one is for senior managers to provide simple guidelines to help junior managers conduct their appraisal. Every year I get my managers (below the rank of my immediate Senior Manager Group) and I talk to them about the appraisal process. I always touch upon the need for managers to talk to their people before they sit to write down appraisals. I am aware that many still shy away from this. And the shying works both ways – the person being evaluated too doesn’t want a conversation with his manager.

Communicating rights of those being evaluated. It is strange how people being appraised think they have no say in the matter. They are equal partners in the appraisal partner and it is important for a company to believe in this. While managers need to be educated the people undergoing the appraisal process need to be comfortable with the process and the manager. They have to have an “insurance” policy at the back of their mind. And the insurance policy is the belief that should their manager differ from their point of view, they can take this to a higher authority.

Having a clearly defined path to address concerns. No matter how good a process any company has, and no matter how true the managers to their duty, human beings conduct the appraisal process. And human beings WILL make mistakes. There can be no other truth than this. The greatest responsibility of a company and its senior management is to ensure there is a mechanism to correct every wrong done. When dissenting with an issue, the chain of command has to be respected, I agree. However, the road comes and stops at the CEO’s desk. He has to be the last court of appeal. There cannot be any point lower no matter how lower down the ladder an employee is. I know many will speculate that this is simply not possible when you have thousands of employees. And my answer is simple, if the process is transparent, the managers aware and a culture of fair evaluation existing in an organisation, the CEO doesn’t need to get involved. However, that doesn’t mean he cannot listen to any voice of dissent no matter how distant the voice is from his position. In fact the distant voice is a true measure of a CEO, his policies and the ‘pulse’ of the company.

I believe as an organisation we make mistakes and we will make mistakes. However, every time a mistake is detected, we need the courage to make amends. This year, I caught a few mistakes before they could actually reach the appraisee, but there were a few that slipped through. Here are some examples of this year’s appraisal.

  1. Letters were typed up for 2 employees. Their managers received the letters and double-checked the pay against new people being hired. They noticed that new hires had salaries close to existing employees and some of who had been with the company for many years. Both the new hires and existing were doing exactly the same job. The managers felt it would send the wrong message to individuals (everyone gets to know the approximate salary of people in their group). I asked for the salaries to be reviewed. In one case it was found that we had erred.
  2. Letters of 2 individuals were held because they had fallen below expectations. There was no ambiguity in their appraisal and yet they were first year employees. It is possible they didn’t get it right the first year they joined. Should they lose their jobs or wait an entire year for another appraisal? The issue was raised to me. I ruled that they should be given a target for the first 6 months. If they achieved it, they would get a baseline increment from the beginning of the appraisal year. I communicated this directly to them.
  3. One person received his letter and didn’t say a word. He has been with the organisation for many years and has been a consistent (very good) performer. While evaluating the department’s structure (for the following year’s manpower budget), the manager noted that the individual was not given any additional responsibilities. We had not evaluated him in a higher role for many years. He had done nothing to shake our confidence and yet, he had been kept on the side line. The manager dug deeper into the records to see if this individual’s job had evolved. And it had. He had taken on additional responsibility in the last year but his immediate supervisor had not captured this. The situation was brought to my attention. I asked for the individual’s letter to be withdrawn and a promotion given based on the fact that he had performed with sufficient evidence to warrant the promotion.
  4. Two individuals went beyond their normal call of duty in the year. A particular department went through a churn as some dead wood was cleaned. The supervisor recommended a promotion. I signed off on it. But when reviewing my decision, I could see that the promotion to the next level would set them up for a fall. They were not yet ready to take on a larger role. The solution I found was to give them an exceptional bonus acknowledging their effort in the year gone by.
  5. One individual has refused to accept the appraisal letter. The dissent is that others doing the same job are differently classified in the company. As of penning this piece, I have asked for the case to be reviewed.

The parents I talk about and the employees I see are very similar in the way they act and react. They form opinions based on their understanding. It is rarely aligned with what the appraising body sees. Schools have their own eco system and their own autonomous way of acting. Today the supply of school seats (in India) is much lower than the demand. In such a market it is normal for schools to get away with murder. But that won’t last forever. I take solace in the fact that 30 years ago college education gave individuals almost no options to pursue a career. You needed ‘connections’ to get a job. But today there is a different India in existence.

Today a fresher from any stream has options.

Diploma holders have options.

People with vocational training have options.

Ask any HR head of any company and he will tell you he has jobs but not qualified people to fill them. There is restructuring taking place at the work place. There is also restructuring taking place in the primary school environment. I am in no way discounting the fact that in primary education there are islands of excellence. But I remain hopeful that this too will change over time.

I can’t reach parents and I know that their emotional attachment to their child overpowers rationality. But at work we can bring about change. An organisation has to develop a culture of trust.

And building trust starts from the top and works its way down the organisation.

It doesn’t start at the bottom to work its way up!!!

I haven’t forgotten all the situations early in my career where I felt left down. I didn’t feel my manager had my life in his hand but I knew that I was very low down in the organisation to really raise my voice loud enough to be heard. Today when I sit in the CEOs chair, I don’t forget where I came from. I know the value of every extra rupee in the hands of people many rungs lower.

They have to trust the system and they have to trust the custodian of the system.

It is on this that a powerhouse organisation is built. This year, at SAGE I am satisfied that we did a reasonable job. Many have told me it is better than ‘reasonable’.

I accept their compliments with a smile but it is their dissent that I want to hear at all times.

As far as my daughter’s score card is concerned, here it is.

She applied ONLY for the Head Girl position.

She made Vice Head Girl.

The Head Girl is someone I haven’t seen, or heard of and I have attended all but one event at the school since Kinder Garten.

The rest is between those who know me and those who don’t…

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About Vivek Mehra

I am currently the MD & CEO of SAGE Publications India. But I wear many hats that make me the person I am. Between the (public) professional life and the very deep and private recesses of my brain lies a universe of thoughts, actions and beliefs. These have been shaped by events, people and perhaps Karma. It's this universe I seek to put in words. When everything else failed me professionally, it was the power of my words that not just resurrected a career but brought back life to life. It is with these words that I continue to make a difference with those whose karma connects mine. Sometimes it's direct and most times it's not. But the essence of who I am never changes and I remain a person searching for himself. Update: In 2014 I published my first book on Kindle. It was written in 1999 and it never saw the light of day. Reader input welcome... http://tinyurl.com/7shadesofgrey
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