Appraisals are only as effective as the PR managers who carry them out

Most people interviewed for this article are fans of a structured appraisal system. But not everyone. As one anonymous employee of a large communications corporation says: "I don't like appraisals as the system is so formulaic that my boss tailors it to suit the system rather than my job. My boss also puts in objectives that have already been met, just to tick the right boxes, so it's a complete waste of time. Our grade system is not incentivising, as once you reach the top of your grade there is no prospect of a pay rise or promotion unless you change job."

Another anonymous contributor, who has been working as a freelance communications consultant for the last ten years, says he doesn't miss appraisals, either as an 'appraisee' or 'appraiser'. He explains: "They rarely delivered anything constructive in terms of career development. My own experience of running appraisals was that they were a waste of time. As a hands-on manager, communicating with staff was something that happened on a regular basis. If people needed training, were feeling unhappy or were under-achieving, this was discussed on the spot and not left to an appraisal. Consequently, when it came to appraisal time there was nothing to discuss, so we'd just chew the fat for the obligatory 15 minutes." Although this consultant recognises that appraisals are useful for large companies or managers who don't know and interact with all their staff on a daily basis, he can't help concluding: "I think for the rest of us they're pretty pointless."

Many freelancers breathe a sigh of relief that their life is free of appraisals, but their dim view of them is not shared by all. According to the latest PRCA benchmarking survey, PR agencies are in favour of appraisal systems, and the vast majority rely upon formal documented appraisals carried out by line managers. Around two-thirds also provide 360-degree type appraisals. Not surprisingly, larger firms tend to have a more structured system in place, and appraisals usually happen about twice a year. Richard Ellis, PRCA communications director, says this reflects the importance agencies place on evaluating staff, and adds: "having clear targets and objectives is crucial to keeping people motivated."

But as Matt Thomas, editor of SMARTA (The small business support and advice network), points out, appraisals are only useful if managers make the effort to make them constructive. He says: "There's no point bothering if it feels like a pointless, time-consuming, box-ticking HR exercise for line managers and a six-monthly test employees fear."

However, Thomas believes that appraisals, done well, provide an opportunity for employers to get closer to employees. He explains: "We're all motivated by different things, so here's a chance to find out what will make staff put in the extra shift. Often it's putting them at the centre of business strategy and making them feel like what they do makes a difference." And although it is important that an appraisal system is structured, there still has to be room for flexibility. Thomas says, "healthy businesses keep the appraisal process rigid, regular and measurable, but also make it a forum that's relaxed, constructive and forward-focused."

Mike Bate, business development manager at people management advisors CQL, is another management expert who believes appraisals help people to work more effectively. He agrees with Thomas that they are a way to encourage managers to have meaningful conversations with their staff. Plus, he points out that appraisals, "help staff to understand what is expected of them, know how their performance is viewed, and are confident their essential development needs are identified." Bate says that appraisals ensure people receive the support they need to do their jobs and get feedback that will motivate them. He concludes: "Are these outcomes really a waste of manager's time?"

PR managers extol the virtues of structured staff evaluation:

"I definitely do not think appraisals are a waste of time! I think they're very useful, obviously depending on how you do them and how much time and effort you invest in them."

Graham Goodkind, founder of PR consultancy Frank PR

"For many people, this official time slot is the only way to gain uninterrupted access to their supervisor and for that reason alone appraisals should not be underrated. The very fact that someone is taking the time to listen to you can have a profound effect on self esteem and can greatly improve motivation levels and job satisfaction."

Lois McCloud, account manager at PR agency Cirkle

"Why do people assume that anything that takes time and effort isn't worth doing? It is essential that people are regularly appraised on their progress. The best way to ensure this happens on an equal basis for everyone is to have an appraisal process in place. The only reason managers question whether they are worth doing or not is because they haven't put enough time or thought into the process, at which point appraisals turn into ineffective meetings which are a waste of everyone's time."

Julia Ruane, head of PR at digital agency DigForFireDMG