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Human Resources: Note “praise” in appraisal

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The staff appraisal process can be a two-edged sword, but it can be handled effectively.

Do you struggle to see the value in conducting performance appraisals with your staff? This is often because the focus of the discussion is on judging and scoring employees. This approach not only causes unnecessary apprehension which can damage morale, but fails to yield any real or lasting results. The idea behind conducting a performance appraisal is to identify, maintain and enhance your staff’s performance, and the way to do this is through a positive and motivating discussion. The heart of the performance management process is professional development planning.


In today’s market, with such fierce competition for quality legal staff, there’s certainly a business case for employers to focus on staff development, not just to get the best out of your people, but as a way of retaining them and ensuring the continuity of your firm’s leadership positions. Commitment to employee development should:

  • ensure your people have the skills to perform at the highest level – help develop your business, attract new clients and offer the best possible service and advice;
  • keep employees happy, challenged, supported, motivated and loyal. They will then want to work harder for the firm; ??retain talented employees;
  • position your firm as an employer of choice to attract the best possible candidates; and
  • develop your employees’ leadership potential, enabling them to move into leading roles in your firm.


Staff development should start from the day the employee joins your firm. They should go through an induction process during which they learn about the business: your firm’s history, culture, core values and strategic goals. They should be given clear objectives and performance expectations, and thorough training.

The performance appraisal

Regular performance appraisals (usually once or twice a year) provide a formal opportunity to offer feedback, address performance and the achievement of set goals and KPIs, discuss opportunities for development and commit to a development plan.

It’s a good idea to start the discussion by asking your staff what they’ve enjoyed about their role and how they think they’re going.

Provide them with lots of positive feedback and recognition for their efforts and achievements throughout the year. Then identify any immediate development needs, where an individual’s performance in a particular area does not yet meet expectations. Follow this by asking your staff to identify their own professional or career development goals and the areas they would like to develop in. Have an open discussion about these goals and discuss the various development opportunities that can be offered, both in-house and externally, to help them achieve those goals.

The strategy you take will depend on the individual but could include:

  • in-house training and coaching;
  • financial support for external professional development activities;
  • support to undertake further study;
  • assistance with and advice on career management; a healthy work/life balance to allow employees with responsibilities outside work to accomplish their career goals with your firm;
  • consistent feedback;
  • mentoring. Pair up high-potential employees with partners or senior associates, for example, so they can spend time learning directly from their experience; and
  • special projects or responsibilities to challenge and stretch employees and prepare them for performing at a higher level.

Consider these suggestions and, with your employee, set specific development goals that are tailored to meet the individual’s immediate and long-term needs. Confirm commitment from both the employee and the employer to this professional development plan, and set a date for follow-up to ensure action is taken.

What not to do

Do not assume that the goal of each of your lawyers is to become partner. Get to know your staff and their individual goals, and customise their development plans. Don’t overlook your support staff. They have their own career goals, many of which you will be able to foster and support.

Be careful not to focus on the negative when conducting appraisals. This only de-motivates your staff. Provide lots of positive feedback and focus on how you can work together to further develop the individual and the business.

Never underestimate the value of giving your staff support, not just by way of paying for a short course, but talking to and getting to know them, offering advice and guidance and being open and flexible.

As an employer it is part of your role to help your staff plan for career opportunities in your firm, but you don’t have to do it all for them. Staff should be expected to take responsibility for their own career development by seeking out advice, training and experience that will enhance their abilities The role of the employer is to facilitate this, and to help staff in their pursuits by creating a culture in which professional development is encouraged and supported. By doing this you should have happy, motivated, highly skilled and loyal employees, which should in turn translate into hard work, quality service and a successful business.

KELLY DERMER is the LIV’s Human Resources coordinator. For more information on this column and other HR issues, ph 9607 9548 or visit


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