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Secretarial: It doesn't have to hurt

Staff and bosses find them painful, but an appraisal can be tolerable.
Alice Speight was horrified when she entered her boss's office for her latest annual performance appraisal. "To be honest, I hate doing these damn things and I don't really know how they work. Do you?" said the manager to his legal secretary from Buckinghamshire.

Alice represents a third of the employees who recently responded to an Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) survey by claiming their bosses treated appraisals as "a bureaucratic chore". Indeed, the same survey showed that 15 per cent of bosses would rather visit the dentist than carry out an appraisal.

"Appraisal systems have become so diverse during the last few years," says Angela Edward, IPD's policy advisor. "The result is that a great many managers - as well as their staff - don't really know how to make the most out of them. And for the appraisee, that can mean losing out on pay, promotions and training."

At their simplest, performance appraisals enable employees to plan and control their work better, to learn from their mistakes and profit from their successes. "But even if managers don't put every effort into achieving this, there's a great deal appraisees can do to help themselves," says Max A Eggert, management psychologist and author of The Managing Your Appraisal Pocketbook.

"The first thing to do, for example, is to request a preliminary discussion about what is going to be assessed and what the results will be. What kind of questions will you be asked? Will you need to produce any paperwork? Will the appraisal identify training needs or is it a chance to bargain for an increase in pay?"

In fact, claims the Industrial Society, the Nineties have witnessed a clear trend away from connections between appraisals and pay. A recent study reveals that of the 77 per cent of British companies that have a formal appraisal system in place, almost half claim there is no link to money. Furthermore, steps have been taken in many organisations to ensure that appraisals have nothing to do with past performance. Instead, they only focus on the future of the staff member in terms of development needs.

"These are things the appraisee must know about in order to prepare," says Debra Allcock, the Industrial Society's head of campaigning.

According to Ms Allcock, secretarial staff are at a particular advantage when it comes to getting the best from their appraisals. "Most appraisals occur annually,' she says. "But throughout the year, there should really be one-to-one's, mini-appraisals ensuring that no progress is missed. Since secretaries are usually in charge of their manager's diary, they can just book in a half-hour slot once a month or so."

Ms Allcock says that secretaries should keep a file on themselves, to keep track of their own progress. "Don't wait until the one-to-one interview to write down your achievements. If someone writes you a note to thank you for something, pop it in a file. If something went really well due to your expertise, write it down and add that too. This file will undoubtedly effect your future because even untrained managers will feel they have to record it.

"In fact, the more untrained they are, the more frightened they may be of messing up and consequently the more likely they may be to record whatever you say or give them.'

June Short, a Hertfordshire-based PA, adds that the close relationship between secretaries and managers can be of enormous benefit. "In every appraisal I've had, I've always asked the boss what I could do to improve our relationship. Without fail, it leads them into asking me the same question back."

If there is one problem that Ms Short hasn't found so easy to overcome, it is subjectivity. Almost a third of the IPD's survey respondents agreed that appraisal ratings have everything to do with how much your boss likes you and nothing to do with how well you do the job. But Angela Edward claims there is a solution.

"Insist on objectivity. If there are complaints about your work or if you come fairly low on the appraisal scale system, ask why and demand examples. Was that report late because you were incompetent, or did your manager omit to record the fact that you were given instructions to amend the whole thing at 10pm the night before it was due? Is it fair to say your time-keeping is bad, or are you given so many chores outside the office that you simply can't be in the office from 9-5? Discuss these details at length and make sure they are recorded."

One way in which companies such as Sony and The Body Shop have attempted to conquer the problem of subjectivity is through the introduction of 360-degree appraisal - in which information about your performance is collated from as many sources as possible.

Your team members, your customers and your subordinates may all be asked to contribute. Sometimes called multi-sourced feedback, it has only been introduced at secretarial level during the past few months but it is quickly catching on.

Undoubtedly, it will be a while before smaller companies introduce such measures. But, claims Debra Allcock, secretarial staff shouldn't make the mistake of assuming large organisations always have the best appraisal systems. "The bigger the company, the more formal the system. Yet this doesn't necessarily mean it's more effective."

Ms Allcock says the best advice to secretaries is to keep copies of appraisals. "That way, you can check there are no discrepancies. Also, you never know when you'll want to look for another job, and if you can produce your last appraisal at the interview - in which it says you're God's gift to the secretarial universe - then you'll increase your chances considerably."

But the really good news for employees who are keen to ensure that the appraisal system works in their favour, is that companies will soon be banned from keeping the content of appraisals secret from their staff.

For under the new data protection bill, all employees will be legally entitled to see every word, which can only act in their favour.

Execsec 98, a new national exhibition and seminar programme for executive secretaries and PAs, begins today. Execsec is held at the Pavilion, NEC Birmingham, and runs from 9am to 5pm, today and tomorrow. Entrance to the exhibition is free.