What is it: staff appraisal software
Applications: creates regular staff reports; and records significant employee events
Staff appraisals have been a standard feature of civil service management for many years, and have more recently been adopted by private companies.
Monitoring staff performance is extremely important, but can be both arduous and time consuming. Plan IT simplifies the job by providing managers with the tools to create staff appraisals quickly and easily.
Details of the individual who is being appraised must be added to the Plan IT database before a report can be created. These include job title, sex and salary, and the name of the author, usually the employee's manager, is also written on the form. In addition, there are five fields which can be specified by the user for extra information to be included.
There are five categories of appraisal form in Plan IT - Clerical, Sales and Service, Management, Production and Universal. In each of these the employee is judged on basic qualities, such as knowledge of the job, dependability and communication skills.
Also, there are certain data boxes which are unique to the individual category of appraisal. In a Management appraisal, for example, the author gives ratings based on leadership, cost consciousness and people management, whereas the Sales and Service equivalent considers customer service and sales skills.
At the outset of a new appraisal, the author must give an average rating on a scale of one to five for each of the employee qualities listed. The section concerning quality is split into a series of one-line elements.
For example, the elements in the job knowledge section are 'competent in required job skills and knowledge', 'exhibits ability to learn and apply new skills', 'keeps abreast of current developments', 'requires minimal supervision', 'displays understanding of how job relates to others' and 'uses resources effectively'.
Awarding marks from one to five or selecting 'not applicable' against each element calculates an average score for that particular quality, and dictates which of the five overall ratings are awarded. These marks correspond to the headings 'unsatisfactory', 'needs improvement', 'meets job requirements', 'exceeds job requirements' and 'outstanding', which are the same performance ratings that are used in civil service reports.
The beauty of Plan IT is that, whenever a mark is placed against the one-line statements, a short piece of text is automatically written on the report. Obviously, the text varies according to the mark, but the software always inserts the employee's name and sex by default to ensure coherent comments.
The sentences offered in the productivity element are 'produces less work than expected', 'not as productive as expected', 'produces a normal amount', 'produces more than expected' and 'exceeds amount of work normally expected'.
Accounting for the fact that staff usually have the right to see their report to comment on its contents, Plan IT has the more positive details of performance sympathetically positioned at the beginning of paragraphs.
The advantage of this is that it encourages in the employee an optimistic frame of mind before revealing any failings or shortcomings.
Another excellent feature is the pop-up warning that appears on screen to highlight inconsistencies in the ratings before copying the text to the report. This indicates where low marks have been awarded, and reminds the author to add freehand comments to back up the argument. It is a particularly useful feature as staff are more likely to challenge criticisms.
When you are happy with Plan IT's standard responses, you can copy the supplied text to the report. Standardisation of responses is often a fairer way of assessing staff because it guarantees a level playing field. Also, employees know what to expect in advance.
That said, it could be argued that the stock sentences of Plan IT seem a little too off-pat and dehumanised. Maybe so, but many manually written appraisals very often turn out that way simply because the author does not have enough time or knowledge to go into further detail.
When it comes to the summaries, the software does not provide set texts, although some intuitive 'example' sentences are suggested as a framework on which to base freehand entries.
However, the advice offered by the Plans for Improvement section is not so useful. It provides a library of meaningless sound bites such as 'build network of peers' and 'live for the future, not the present'.
The employee log is a valuable feature. It provides a basic database for the manager to record information on significant events during the appraisal period. Details of events and any discussions between the author and the employee can be a vital point of reference for backing up controversial comments or arguments in the final report. In its most basic form, it can act as a record of an employee's consistent lateness or absence. Alternatively, it can be used as a detailed plan of shared ideas on employee progress and development.
Plan IT's graphical layouts are extremely basic - only font sizes and page margins can be changed before the report is printed. However, you can redesign the content of reports. Authors can add fields of their own choice according to the requirements of the company or the individual job description. Also, the default ratings can be altered to more appropriate titles. Instead of attaching the description 'outstanding' to the top mark, for example, other labels such as 'consistently superior' or 'unusually effective' could be used.
Plan It also provides advice, as well as examples of the type of information employees prefer to see on appraisal forms. For example, it explains that employees like to sign the report form. This reassures them that an appraisal depends on their participation, even if they don't necessarily agree with the written comments.
The software runs on a 386 processor and 4Mb of RAM, so can work on virtually any PC or compatible machine, including the type of notebooks most often used for word processing. It works with Windows 3.1 and 95, and can also be installed as a multi-user version on a file server. The price includes a 60-day, money-back guarantee and, although it is very easy to use, 60 days of free technical support.
Verdict: Plan IT is ideal for hard-pressed managers with little time or too many staff to produce detailed appraisals. The stock sentences may be too standardised for some, but the advice offered is usually helpful.
At #59, it's good value for money.
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