Technology Offers Leaders A Way To Take The Pain Out Of Employee Appraisals


Roger Trapp, Contributor

February 20, 2014

Employee engagement has been a hot topic in the human resources community for some time now, with many a bold claim made about the impressive effect it can have on workplace performance. However, for many organizations it remains an elusive concept.

This is demonstrated by the report by the HR consultancy AON Hewitt, 2013 Trends in Global Employee Engagement. It revealed that around the world only 20% of employees were actively engaged. A further 40% were “moderately engaged”, with 23% “passive”. This left 17% “actively disengaged”. An even less inspiring picture was painted by London Business School professor Lynda Gratton at a workshop on engagement organized by her Hot Spots research consortium in London earlier this month. She pointed to research by the opinion poll company Gallup suggesting that only 13% of people were engaged at work, with 63% not engaged and 24% “actively disengaged”.

Noting that these proportions had hardly changed over the course of the recent recession, Gratton highlighted a comment by David Fairhurst, chief people officer for Europe at McDonald’s Restaurants: “Imagine the likely response to learning that only 20% of the organization’s computers worked properly and that 20% either did nothing at all or spent their entire time infecting other systems with viruses.” Of course, powerful as the analogy is, part of the problem is that people are not computers and cannot be programmed to perform in predictable ways.

It is noteworthy that one aspect of the issue that Gratton and her colleagues are exploring is the idea of customising engagement initiatives so that they better reflect differences between individual employees in terms of goals and motivations. After all, the data seem to indicate that the present ways in which work and workplaces are set up do not suit most people – a particular concern, given that working lives are likely to last much longer than in the past.

They are also looking at the impact of big data. A movement that was having a powerful impact in marketing was increasingly moving into HR, said Gratton. Indeed, such developments have already been documented, as here and here. In Gratton’s view, the impact will be that HR professionals will be able to predict more accurately the success of initiatives in this (and other) areas.

Technology, as in other fields, will, of course, only be part of the answer. However, that is not to say there are not opportunities for technological solutions to make a difference in this area. Among the early movers is SocialChorus, a San Francisco-based company that is developing “advocate marketing” campaigns for a host of well-known brands. Founder and CEO Gregory Shove explains that the original focus of the company was using customers and their growing interest in social media to promote companies. However, in the past year the business has seen a rapid expansion in employees becoming advocates for their companies. Shove says there are two drivers. On the one hand, sales and marketing people are becoming more savvy about social media and using the medium to connect with prospects. On the other, chief executives and chief marketing officers are starting to realise that their employees are connected via Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to completely different sorts of people from those to whom the companies may normally market. As a result, there is great potential to expand marketing reach, at the same time as helping employees become more comfortable about social media.

Shove stresses that – to be effective – the approach needs to be more sophisticated than having the marketing department simply expecting employees to Tweet press releases. This is where the SocialChorus platform comes in, with an easy-to-use, mobile device-friendly application. He also says that companies need to be careful to protect their brands, especially in regulated areas, such as financial services. But he adds that, done correctly with small rewards and other forms of recognition, it can have a tangible effect on not just sales but on how employees feel about their organizations.

Meanwhile, Survey Analytics, a Seattle-based company specializing in providing all sorts of organizations with feedback on customers, prospects, employees and other groups, has come up with a simple tool that Vivek Bhaskaran, president, claims enables senior executives to gauge “the temperature” of their businesses at the click of a button.

The origins of FlashLet lie in what Bhaskaran saw as general dissatisfaction with appraisals and other methods that companies use to listen to employees. Realising that the appraisals were too infrequent and often too complex to be useful, he went back to basics and decided to settle on one question in much the same way that the management consultancy Bain centres its Net Promoter Score customer satisfaction system on the single issue of whether respondents would recommend a product or service to friends and family.

As a result, employees in companies that adopt FlashLet will every week receive an email asking the single question: “How was your week?” There is no link to negotiate. They simple choose between positive, negative and neutral and reply, although they also have the option to make a simple comment about their answer. The results are collated by Survey Analytics over the weekend and on Monday morning the CEO, and anybody else nominated, receives an equally simple email containing the scores and how they compare with the previous week. The result is that executives have a constant feel for how employees regard the organization. Moreover, they can compare scores between different sites and different groups of employees.

On its own, the initiative avoids the delays associated with collating the results of complex surveys, but, says Bhaskaran, its real value lies in the fact that the results can be “a catalyst for meetings” and so act as “a springboard to having a conversation” about particular issues affecting the business.

He accepts that some people may be uneasy about sending out this sort of email, at least initially, and he says that there are plans to allow the message to be made lighthearted or otherwise tailored to meet different requirements. Nor does he believe this is the answer to all business problems.

But he shares the general view that engagement – or lack of it – is an important issue and that lack of proper feedback is part of the problem. If businesses “can eliminate disengagement then they can deal with a lot of other issues,” he says.

Indeed, Gratton said in her presentation that neurological research increasingly supported the widely-held view about the shortcomings of appraisals. Studies showed, she added, that chief among the factors that had a significant effect on how people felt about work were status, certainty, autonomy, reputation and fairness. In other words, just the sort of things that were called into question by appraisals and other workplace assessments.

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter