Peer Appraisal:  An Uncommon But Useful Approach to Performance Evaluation


Introduction


        Various methods for evaluating employee performance have been used in the United States since the 1920's.  While a good many traditional approaches to performance appraisal remain popular and widely accepted, one of the lesser known models, peer appraisal, is the subject of this literature review.  Although a body of research exists showing significant potential advantages of peer ratings, relatively few organizations, including libraries, have adopted the peer approach.  In an era when flatter organizational structures, self-managed work teams, and the empowerment of workers are trendy, it seems natural that this organizational climate will become more interested in and accepting of peer involvement in the appraisal process.

        Another important aspect of the peer appraisal method which merits careful consideration is its application, i.e., the purposes for which it is being used, and of particular interest is how it is being applied in library settings.  Of the six articles included in this review, three pertain to peer appraisal in industrial settings and the others relate to either actual or potential library applications.  One of the peer methods with library applicability actually looks at a somewhat different form of peer review:  that used in conjunction with academic librarians holding faculty status.  In this instance, the review by peers is conducted to evaluate the librarian’s achievements and scholarly contributions when considering advancement (promotion) and continuing appointment (tenure) possibilities.  While there seems to be an almost unlimited amount of literature on performance management and appraisal, relatively little is available on the topic of peer appraisal and this scarcity is particularly evident when searching library literature.  Currency of the articles included in this review was considered carefully since major transformations have occurred in the library workplace over the past decade.  Therefore, with the exception of one, all the articles reviewed were published within the past decade.

  Article Summaries

         “Lessons Learned from Self-Managed Work Teams” addresses the topic of peer appraisal by investigating its use in a Texas Instruments facility in Sherman, Texas.  Operating in a team-based environment, the peer appraisal process is viewed as a means of providing feedback to individual team members and helping them set goals and construct plans for improvements to accomplish team objectives.  Thus, while employees are provided feedback concerning their strengths and weaknesses, the team environment promotes and supports each individual’s efforts to modify traits which are contrary to team expectations and performance.  A significant observation was that the Texas Instruments employees perceived that the process of appraising each other brought them closer, making them better team members.

         The Clark Material Handling Company in Lexington, Kentucky, is the setting for “The Power of Peer Review.”  With well-established self-directed work teams in place, Clark’s management implemented a peer appraisal system consisting of a review phase and a feedback session.  The appraisal is based on an employee’s performance in achieving the company’s explicitly stated standards of excellence.  For the review phase, the team, excluding the employee being reviewed, discusses the teammate’s performance, agrees on a rating, and produces a written review.  In the feedback session, team members discuss the rating with the employee and encourage him or her to respond.  A fundamental concept of the system is that in addition to providing performance feedback to a team member, the team must be committed to helping the team member improve weak areas of job performance.  The team’s support of its members and its effectiveness in communicating performance expectations are critical to the growth and success of the team as a whole.  The articles emphasizes the key role that facilitators play in helping the team achieve consensus on rating decisions and in producing ratings that are based on observable behavior and good documentation.

         “A Jury of One’s Peers” points out the paradox regarding peer appraisal: Most research on the quality of peer ratings is positive, but few organizations have opted to use peer ratings in any formal way.1 Also noted are several potential advantages of peer ratings: (1) they are more stable over time than supervisory ratings, (2) they are more likely to focus on performance and results, (3) they are reliable and valid, and (4) they are excellent predictors of future job performance.2 The Schreiber Foods plant in Logan, Utah, implemented a peer appraisal system developed by teams of hourly paid employees and plant managers in 1985.  Prior to implementing this review scheme, supervisors received training from outside consultants to enhance skills in observing and describing behavior, minimizing rater errors, and conducting effective appraisal interviews.  Supervisors were responsible for distributing appraisal materials and holding individual feedback sessions with employees.  A later survey of Schreiber employees revealed that there were more positive responses to peer appraisal when the purpose was developmental (performance feedback) than when the purpose was evaluative (wage determination).

         “Peer Review: A Team-Building Way to Evaluate Employees” offers insight regarding the merits of a peer review program.  Peers’ recognition of co-worker strengths and weaknesses and their willingness to provide candid feedback are two pluses of peer review.  This approach is also touted for enhancing team members’ perception of each other and promoting a better understanding of how each person’s performance is linked to the success of the team as a whole.

        Supervisors are placed in a pivotal role because they are responsible for conducting a feedback session with individual employees after rating forms have been completed by co-workers.  The long-term success of this peer review scheme is closely linked to the supervisor’s level of commitment to share the rating results with the review subject in a constructive manner.  A model with several core performance factors applicable to library settings is presented and discussed.  The factors enumerate and define a wide range of desirable employee traits.

         “Ensuring Quality Reference Desk Service: The Introduction of a Peer Process” summarizes a project undertaken in the LSU Libraries in 1988 to improve the quality of reference desk service.  With a particular emphasis on enhancing service to undergraduates, the peer review process in this setting was designed to have a formative or developmental focus that allowed the reference staff (graduate assistants, paraprofessionals, and all faculty ranks) to concentrate on improving their performance as it related to the quality of service provided to users.  Peer review was selected as the evaluative method since it offered a means of achieving improved reference desk service by providing a constructive interactive approach and it is based on the support of one’s colleagues.  Factors that contributed to the reference staff’s acceptance of the peer process were existing efforts toward team building and involvement of the staff in the process throughout its development and implementation.  After the review cycle had been completed three times, a comparison of the results indicated that the peer process influenced desk performance positively.  In addition to the ratings, reviewer comments supported the conclusion that most staff were showing improvement.

         An examination of the peer review structure and process for advancement (promotion) and continuing appointment (tenure) for librarians is the subject of “Peer Review in Carnegie Research Libraries.”  The review process for librarians at research institutions often includes an overview of performance carried out by the supervisor and of a review, generally conducted by peers, governing advancement and/or continuing appointment.  In institutions where librarians hold faculty status, a committee of library peers is commonly used to evaluate the performance and accomplishments of a candidate for promotion or tenure. Key among the evidence considered by a review committee are the candidate’s scholarly research and publication activity.  Performance expectations and the process used for evaluating performance are crucial elements in fostering and assessing the value of librarians on today’s campuses.  The authors maintain that the process employed for review of librarians and the documentation required should be equivalent to that used for other faculty.  The study reveals many similarities in the peer review structure among research institutions.

   Current Thought on Peer Appraisal

         The literature reviewed indicates that peer appraisal can be an effective evaluative method when applied to team-structured work settings.  Introduction of this appraisal process is suggested for teams that have been functioning together for some appreciable time rather than newly formed teams.  For employees accustomed to traditional evaluation methods, acceptance of peer appraisal is enhanced when employees are allowed to participate in the development and implementation of the process.  There is agreement in the literature that peer appraisal is most successful when it is utilized for developmental purposes, i.e., to provide constructive feedback to the employee.  Depending on which variation of peer appraisal is used, facilitators and/or supervisors will play pivotal roles in the functioning of the teams and extensive training is often required to insure that these personnel are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to manage the process.  The positive effects of peer appraisal are most likely to be realized in team environments where employees offer support to one another and commit to helping co-workers understand performance expectations as well as improving areas of weak performance.

         Academic librarians hold faculty status at most research institutions and are reviewed by a committee of library or university peers as part of their overall performance evaluation.  The purpose of this type of peer review is to assess the level of scholarly research and publishing activity in relation to promotion and tenure decisions.

   Emerging Trends and Implications for the Future


         With many organizations currently adopting decentralized, less hierarchical management structures, it is reasonable to project that team-based management will be the alternative of choice in many instances.  Furthermore, with the increased presence of teams, peer appraisal will attain a higher level of recognition as a useful component of the team performance concept.  The successful integration and application of team-based performance principles and peer appraisal will mandate a redefining of roles for those in supervisory positions since they will function as coaches or facilitators in many team environments.  This shift in roles will create a need for training and skills development opportunities to develop team facilitation competencies.  Although accountability concerns may preclude some entities which fall under the administration of state government performance management systems from adopting new appraisal schemes, the literature suggests there is value to be gained by using peer input in conjunction with a supervisor-produced evaluation.3

         As libraries and other work environments seek to assess and respond to users’ or customers’ level of satisfaction with services or products, it is plausible to project more applications of peer appraisal as documented herein by the 1988 LSU Libraries project to improve reference desk service.

         In the arena of academic librarianship, performance evaluation decisions governing promotion and tenure will continue to rely on peer review as a mechanism for validating scholarly activity.

 Personal Thoughts and Interpretations

         While there are presently few sources of information in the literature on library applications of peer appraisal, its potential usefulness merits consideration particularly as more organizations including libraries restructure to team-based forms of management.  For many libraries, adopting peer appraisal as an evaluation method represents a radical, and perhaps unwelcome, change from traditional modes of assessing performance.  The literature reviewed suggests that peer appraisal often effects many positive influences in a work environment.  When introduced and managed judiciously and used as a channel for communicating constructive feedback to individuals, peer appraisal has generally been well-received by employees.  However, when used as an assessment tool for other purposes such as pay raises and promotions, peer appraisal can contribute to mistrust and a lack of objectivity among employees.  For this approach to performance evaluation to be successful, it will require an organizational climate which genuinely espouses the concepts of a team-based structure and adequately equips those who are responsible for facilitating team processes.

   Peer Appraisal Information Sources on the World Wide Web

         Using the World Wide Web to locate relevant sources of information on peer appraisal proved to be a tedious, time-consuming task.  Though various search engines generated an impressive number of hits for “peer appraisal,” few of the results related even marginally to peer appraisal as a form of performance evaluation.  Excite was the search engine that seemed best suited to handle this search, though it too yielded a lot of “clutter.”  Three sites with relevant content are included in the bibliography, yet only one of these is specific to peer appraisal.  It is acknowledged that a more sophisticated search or an alternate search strategy may have provided a significant number of sources that pertained more directly to this topic.


NOTES

1.  Glenn M. McEvoy, Paul F. Buller, and Steven R. Rogbaar,   “A Jury of One’s Peers,”  Personnel Administrator 33 (May 1988): 94.

2.  Ibid.

3.  Ibid., 98.


SOURCES CONSULTED

 Effective Compensation, Incorporated. “Peer Performance Appraisal– Selected Design Issues.” 1996.
 http://www.eci-us.com/peerappraisal.html (March 3, 2000)

 Kleiner, Jane P. “Ensuring Quality Reference Desk Service: The Introduction of a Peer Process.” RQ. 30 (Spring 1991): 349-61.

 Leysen, Joan M. and William K. Black. “Peer Review in Carnegie Research Libraries.” College and Research Libraries. 59, no.6 (Nov. 1998): 512-22.

 McEvoy, Glenn M., Paul F. Buller, and Steven R. Rogbaar. “A Jury of One’s Peers.” Personnel Administrator. 33 (May 1988): 94-101.

Ramsay, Martin L. and Howard Lehto. “The Power of Peer Review.” Training & Development.  48 (July 1994): 38-41.

Smart Business Supersite. “How to Measure with Appraisals.” 1996.
 http://www.smartbiz.com/sbs/arts/swp112.html (March 3, 2000)

 Waters, Richard L. “Peer Review: A Team-Building Way to Evaluate Employees.” Public Library Quarterly. 16, no.1 (1997): 63-7.

 Yeatts, Dale E., Martha Hipskind, and Debra Barnes.  “Lessons Learned from Self-Managed Work Teams.”  Business Horizons. 37 (July/August 1994): 11-18.

Zigon Performance Group. “Links to Performance Measurement-Related Sites.” 1999.
 http://www.zigonperf.com/Links.html (March 3, 2000)


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