“One Nueron Short of a Synapse?”
Annual staff appraisals can be a once a year opportunity for constructive
two-way communication between staff and employers. It can be a unique occasion
for employers to highlight concerns they may have about performance issues
of individual employees at work. It is also one of the few occasions when employees
themselves are given the forum to comment on their position and to voice any
dissatisfaction they may be feeling. The opportunity then presents itself for
both parties to agree a plan of action over the forthcoming six months to a
year to address any issues which have been identified.
A useful exercise – right? Well, not always. The above analysis presupposes
that all parties are taking a pragmatic attitude to the appraisal process.
In actual fact managers often use the appraisal system as a one way means of
communicating their own private frustrations with individual employees. Some
of the more humorous comments taken from actual employee evaluations include
the poignant “works well under constant supervision and cornered like
a rat in a trap”; the incisive “his team would follow him anywhere
but only out of morbid curiosity”; the scathing “he sets low personal
standards then consistently fails to achieve them”; the caustic “this
employee should go far – and the sooner he starts, the better”;
and the truculent “this young lady has delusions of adequacy”.
Whilst these comments may be justified to a certain extent, there are occasions
when managers resort to a more directly abusive tone. Various personnel departments
have relayed comments made by managers including the misanthropic “I
would not allow this employee to breed”; the slanderous “this employee
is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot”; the asinine “when
his IQ reaches 50 he should sell”; and the opprobrious “a prime
candidate for natural deselection” are obvious examples. Finally, there
are those occasions which convey a deeper animosity such as the psychotic “I
would like to go hunting with him sometime”!
There is of course a serious point to all this. Comments like these, whilst
amusing, undermine the appraisal process and in so doing may give rise to claims
for constructive dismissal. Such comments may not be capable of objective justification
and employees may be able to claim that they are being singled out and victimised
by managers without reason. Even where such comments about an individual’s
performance do have a semblance of justification, employers have a duty to
act in a reasonable manner which is not calculated to undermine the relationship
of trust and confidence between the employer and employee. Tribunals are unlikely
to look sympathetically on such comments when determining whether or not employers
have complied with this duty.
It is not safe to assume that private comments made by managers in staff appraisals
for the benefit of the personnel department will remain confidential. The Data
Protection Act 1998 extends individuals’ access to “data” to
cover manual filing systems and this includes access to personnel files. The
definition of personal data includes expressions of opinion, including both
current and historically adverse comments on an employee’s performance
which were originally included on a confidential basis in the personal file.
Such matters will become available in due course to employees and clearly may
be of great evidential value to employees who wish to bring constructive dismissal
claims against their employers.
Employers should maximise the potential benefits of the appraisal process
by laying down more structured guidelines for managers to follow. Guidelines
should also be laid down as to the nature of the material that is to be included
on employees’ personnel files in the future. In the meantime employers
are advised to clear out personnel files periodically to remove any information
which is no longer relevant or useful but the disclosure of which could be
damaging to employer / employee relations.