While some would label it as the “grandfather” of performance appraisal methods, the essay method is still a commonly used appraisal method in a variety of business models. The essay method, sometimes known as the “free-form method,” is a performance review system where a superior creates a written review of the employee’s performance.
These essays are meant to describe and record an employee’s strengths and weaknesses in job performance, identifying problem areas and creating a plan of action to remedy them. Whether the essay is written by the appraiser alone, or in collaboration with the appraisee, essays provide supervisors the opportunity to assess behaviors and performance with greater complexity and attention to detail.
There are many reasons that the essay method--which was one of the first methods used to evaluate performance--is still effective today.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of essay appraisals is their free-form approach to performance reviews. Whereas some employers can feel limited by rigid performance appraisal criteria, the essay method takes a far less structured stance than typical rating scale methods. In so doing, the appraiser is able to examine any relevant issue or attribute of performance that is pertinent to an employee’s job description or overall company growth.
The essay method assumes that not all employee traits and behaviors can be neatly analyzed, dissected, and rated--instead, it allows appraisers to place varied degrees of emphasis on certain qualities, issues, or attributes that are appropriate. Rather than being locked into a fixed system, this open-ended method gives supervisors the freedom of expression and critical thought.
When preparing an essay, a supervisor may consider any of the following factors of an employee as they relate to the company and employee relationship: potential and job knowledge, understanding of the company’s policies, relationships with peers and supervisors, planning and organization, and general attitudes and perceptions. This thorough, non-quantitative assessment provides a good deal more information about an employee than most other performance appraisal techniques.
However, as with all performance appraisal methods, there are a few limitations that the essay method suffers from that are worth examining.
One of the major drawbacks of the essay method is its highly subjective nature--they are often subject to bias, and it can be difficult to separate the assessment of the employee from the bias of the evaluator. While the essay can provide a good deal of information about the employee, it tends to tell more about the evaluator than the one being evaluated.
Another element that essays leave out (that other appraisal methods rely heavily on) is comparative results. Instead of utilizing standardized, numeric questions, these appraisals rely only on open-ended questions. While the essay method gives managers the ability to provide detailed and circumstantial information on a specific employee’s performance, it removes the component of comparing performance with other employees. This often makes it difficult for HR to distinguish top performers.
Overall, the appraisal method’s greatest advantage--the freedom of expression for the evaluator--can also serve as its greatest handicap. Even the actual writing of the reviews can upset or distort the process of employee appraisals, as the introduction of inconsistent, unorganized, or poor writing styles can distort and upset the review process. An employee may be unfairly helped or harmed by an evaluator’s writing ability. An evaluator can also find themselves lacking sufficient time to prepare the essay, and can write an essay hurriedly without accurately assessing an employee’s performance.
Appraisal by essay is generally most effective in performance reviews for employees with atypical job descriptions or non-numerical goals. While other appraisals work well in analyzing performance for jobs that are subject to goals based on numbers, essays offer a more subjective analysis of performance for employees with managerial or customer service positions.
When analyzing production, the essay method is most effective in combination with another appraisal method. Using a graphic rating scale along with essay appraisals allows one method to focus solely on numbers, while the essay portion can be used to analyze other performance goals.
Here are 3 things to strive for in order to set your company up for success in essay performance appraisals:
Keeping a standard for style and length of essay appraisals can make the biggest difference in ensuring that your reviews are effective. Essays that are unstructured and unnecessarily complex can be detrimental to an employee’s rating, as well as using unspecific, flowery language that is not relevant to the employee’s performance. In order to remain efficient and effective, today’s evaluators should focus on making appraisal essays short and specific, ensuring that the entire review reflects the performance of the employee.
The appraiser should also ensure that they are making sufficient time in their schedule to prepare the essay. A busy evaluator may compromise an employee’s performance rating by writing a hurried essay, or running out of time to thoroughly assess employee performance. It’s important for all participants of essay appraisals to take enough time to write a consistent, accurate, and succinct review in order to set employees up for success.
If you’ve chosen to use essay appraisals in your organization, it’s important to ensure that your appraisers possess the ability to write well. Even if an essay contains detailed, circumstantial information, it becomes difficult to extract valuable data from a poorly written essay. To ensure that nothing stands between an HR professional’s ability to assess an employee’s performance, evaluators should be trained as well-equipped writers.
Giving writing assistant tools or tips to supervisors can make all the difference in the accuracy and efficiency of an employee’s performance review.
Subjectivity is both a strength and a weakness in essay appraisals. Not only are essays themselves often biased, but the misinterpretation of essays can even further distance the main evaluator from an accurate portrayal of an employee’s performance. Including objective standards in a performance review results in a more balanced and productive review process, and helps to eliminate the forming of incorrect conclusions about an employee’s behavior and performance.
Organizations often implement this goal by pairing essay appraisals with another appraisal method, such as graphic scale ratings, to draw more accurate conclusions and performance data. In so doing, evaluators can utilize all of the free expression and open-ended characteristics of an essay appraisal, while still maintaining accurate, easily translated results that are effective for the overall organization.