NEWS & RESOURCES

360 Degree Appraisals for Employee Development

A 360-degree appraisal is a tool which can be useful in supporting an employee’s development by providing a wider range of feedback to the employee than a standard appraisal review, thus helping to reinforce/change behaviour to improve performance in the job/future career development.

What is a 360-degree appraisal?

As the name implies, a 360-degree appraisal can be used to gain constructive feedback for employees from above, below and alongside them – from seniors, peers, and direct reports. This can be extended outside of your business to get feedback from external parties such as clients/suppliers/customers where such relationships form a key part of the role.

Gaining such feedback can be as simple as asking for a summary of key achievements over the period, main strengths and main areas for development. This may be enough for the employee/manager to gain a good understanding of any development requirements.

The results may not always be what the person wants to hear but, once he/she is over the initial shock, they tend to be very useful! The employee and the manager may believe that some of the responses are inaccurate or misjudged. Remember they are other people’s observations of the employee. There are no right or wrong answers, simply a measurement of how that person is perceived by others with whom he/she deals as part of his/her job. Whatever the initial reaction to the responses, it is worth taking time to review them and understand others’ perspectives. The employee may not need to change his/her skills, but to avoid misunderstandings/misperceptions by adapting his/her behaviour accordingly.

360-degree feedback can be a very useful supplement to more familiar performance management tools such as appraisal. It is a very useful tool for a manager to suggest using for an employee who has a poor behavioural rating on his/her appraisal, but does not accept or understand why.

Issues to consider prior to using 360-degree feedback

It takes time and effort to seek, obtain and collate information from different many sources, so consider which employees would benefit from this. 360-degree feedback is primarily a tool to be used to increase self-awareness and assist self-development. The employee must be committed to the process and encouraged to use it by being informed of the advantages of doing so; however it may be preferable not to force everyone into this but to use it only for those who will be receptive to it, for particular key groups such as senior managers or those on a management development route. 360-degree feedback can be particularly effective for newly-appointed managers once they have established themselves in the role to check they are coping well with the added responsibility and to highlight any areas of concern up front rather than leaving them to feel they are not being supported. However, employees cannot be developed against their will and if they are not committed to the exercise and open to considering the feedback, it can be a waste of time and money as nothing is likely to be done with the results.

Introduce it at the right time! It is not generally considered wise to introduce 360-degree feedback at times of instability such as re-organisation or redundancy exercises. Wait until these have been completed and the business has settled down.

Ensure that the relevant employees are properly briefed in advance regarding the process and its purpose and help is given to them to identify suitable respondents. Any concerns regarding confidentiality or any other issue should be resolved before the exercise commences.

What questions to ask

The respondents are usually asked to rate the employee against specific work-related situations and his/her use of skills and competencies. Larger organisations tend to have a set of core competencies which they use for recruitment, development and performance management in each role. Where these exist, they should be the measures used in the 360-degree questions, to enable comparison to the requirements of each job.

Questions should be specific, clear and relevant to the needs of the business and how the employee can contribute to this in his/her role; make sure it is clear what competency or skill is being measured in each case.

Responses should be in the form of a rating scale, eg where skill is used to a great extent to not at all, or performance is excellent to poor. It is common to include some text boxes where supporting comments can be made if necessary.

Selecting the respondents

The more responses obtained the better, as there is less chance of the results being skewed by any particularly strong answers or personality issues. If there are insufficient responses, anonymity may not be preserved (resulting in less frank answers from subordinates). Around 10 responses from a range of people (managers, peers, external contacts where applicable and self) should provide effective feedback, with around 3-5 from each group.

The respondents should be informed about the confidentiality of the exercise, who will have access to the information provided and how the feedback will be provided to the employee(s) concerned.

The best results will be obtained for employees who are prepared to leave their ‘comfort zones’ and choose people to give feedback who perhaps they have not got on with in the past, who they have disagreed with or who they need to improve a working relationship with. It is difficult to accept critical feedback from someone but it may be the most useful and beneficial feedback they ever get!

Presenting the feedback

It is usual to gather all of the individual responses and summarise them in a brief report. Clearly this is easier where ratings are provided, rather than lots of individual comments. Summaries should be concise, provide a clear visual picture of the results and be easily understood. Lengthy reports rarely get read in their entirety, so short concise formats are best, or at least a summary of the key data made clear early in the report. Where competencies are used, the report will measure the employee against a competency or skill and give a consolidated viewpoint. This may also be further broken down into responses from managers, peers, external contacts and self. (Note: where for example an employee has only one manager, such break downs will clearly indicate the individual response of the manager but this should be no surprise to the employee if effective performance management is carried out throughout the year.) Usually, the employee will be able to compare “how you see yourself” with “how everyone else sees you”; “how other managers see you” and “how your staff see you”. If there are sufficient comparators, the report can also show how the employee is rated in comparison to his/her norm group (the mean of a group of individuals who have gone through the same exercise).

The better reports will not only measure the employee against each competency or skill, but also compare the result to the level of that skill which is required in the role. Usually the relative importance of each competency/skill will be rated by the employee and manager and the employee will be expected to concentrate on the most important ones. Again, if the role has been clearly communicated by the manager, there should be no surprises and the responses of employee and manager should correlate to a significant extent.
The more complex tools, analysed by external specialists, will offer suggestions for prioritising development needs and ideas and ways of meeting these. They may also give a breakdown of responses by question but will retain the confidentiality of the responder. They can therefore be more effective as they will tend to encourage more frank and honest responses. The downside is that they can be expensive, although cheap on-line versions are now available which can give a fairly rapid response in terms of report creation.

Using the feedback

Many organisations undertake this exercise for employees’ self-development. Some do not ask to see the results themselves but ask that the employee acts upon the guidance provided regarding development needs, or building on particular strengths. However employees should be positively encouraged to involve their managers in the development plan which may come out of this exercise as, without their backing, it is unlikely they will be able to make any significant changes. Also the feedback may raise various development ‘themes’ across the organisation, leading to suggested changes in policies, culture etc.

Feedback is better given in person, rather than just a printed report, and should be given in a confidential and supportive environment and as soon as possible after it has been obtained, so that it is still up to date and relevant. Larger organisations may have HR or Training Managers trained to do this; others may use the services of an external provider and a coach who will then support the employee in focusing on his/her goals and putting the feedback into perspective to support these, looking for key messages and compiling a development plan.

In order for this to be effective, the coach will need to know also about those who were selected to give feedback and their relationship to the employee. Was there a suitable mix of respondents? How does the feedback correlate with job performance? Are there any particular situations that could have gone better and can these be linked to the lower scores in the feedback report; similarly, what went well and does the report reflect these?

Employees should be asked to look at the positive as well as negative responses, and see them as opportunities to improve. Part of the focus should be on building on key strengths as well as homing in on any development needs. The coach should help to identify themes or to review why certain responses are so disparate and lead the employee to the answers, rather than pointing them out, as this will increase understanding and clarity.

As part of the follow up actions, the employee could arrange to meet with the respondents to discuss his/her development plan (but not specific ratings or feedback) to show that he/she has taken the feedback on board and is willing to work with colleagues to improve or maintain the behaviour in question.

Tips

  • Do not link the feedback results to employees’ pay reviews. 360-degree feedback, if part of your appraisal process, should only be included in the developmental section.
  • Schedule the frequency of your 360 programmes to ensure there is a distinct gap between completing the process again or the results will become diluted and respondents will lack the energy (and interest) to devote to this.
  • The larger the team, or circle of respondents, the better. This process does not work well with small teams, particularly in view of respondent anonymity being difficult to maintain.
  • The most vital step of this process is the final one – follow up. The benefit of having the feedback is lost if the goals set are not evaluated and do not reflect the feedback.
  • 360-degree feedback is most effective in secure situations where employees do not feel under pressure and are therefore more receptive and open-minded. Do not schedule 360-degree feedback during times of uncertainty: both the subjects and the respondents will be too cautious and perhaps demotivated to answer honestly.
  • Include training for all involved on giving and receiving feedback to ensure a robust process.

Conclusion

360-degree appraisal can be a powerful tool to support the development of your employees.

You could consider a simple in-house version initially to gauge employee interest or have it as an ‘add-on’ to your standard performance reviews for key staff, and then progress to a more complex tool from an external provider for particular needs. As with all new initiatives, it is always advisable to pilot it with a small group of employees first, then review it prior to rolling it out more widely. Thereafter it should be regularly monitored, its effectiveness evaluated and be adapted as necessary.

Legal Considerations

Although there is no legal requirement to carry out appraisals or performance reviews, employers should note that appraisal documentation is frequently referred to in employment tribunal cases. It is extremely important therefore that appraisal discussions are fully and appropriately documented to cover ALL areas of the employee’s performance honestly and accurately.

Be aware of the legal requirements and good practice relating to equal opportunity and diversity. In essence, you need to treat all employees fairly, consistently and objectively.

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