Performance Appraisals: A Historic View

One of the earliest recorded efforts at job performance evaluation review occurred in the U.S. Army. In 1813, General Lewis Cass was asked to provide a formal evaluation of his men. Although General Cass's comments provide a humorous example, they also identify the problem that occurs when there are no specific goals established against which to evaluate staff performance. General Cass's assessement of employee performance:

This office has talents but has kept them well hidden.
Does not drink, but is a good mixer.
Can express a sentence in two paragraphs at a time.
He has failed to demonstrate any outstanding weaknesses.
Open to suggestions, but never follows same.
An exceptionally well qualified officer.
Of average intelligence except for lack of judgment on one occasion in attempting to capture a rattlesnake for which he was hospitalized.

Despite the obvious drawbacks of such a "trait" rating system, the U.S. military continued to be in the forefront of developing a standardized appraisal process. In the 1800s, other federal institutions such as Congress and the Civil Service attempted to implement performance evaluation systems with varying degree of success.

The first formal evaluation process in private business is thought to have been initiated in 1913 by Lord & Taylor, a New York City department store. Following WWI, many businesses adopted various merit systems of performance evaluation. Most tended to focus on the traits of the employee and he or she approached the job, rather than on the results of their performance.

Over the years, both government and business have tried various systems to come up with "the" way to conduct employee performance appraisals. It now has become generally accepted that the best way to evaluate performance is to focus on the employee's behaviors and results, not on their personality traits. It is estimated that only half of the large organizations in US have formal appraisal system for salaried employees, and that virtually none of the millions of smaller businesses do.
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