Actions to take: Read past performance appraisals for all of your employees before beginning to write this year's appraisals. To get your hands on them, simply contact HR. Couch your request in terms of keeping things consistent and avoiding upset employees. Examine those appraisals both for content and for style. Use what you've learned to inform your own choices about how to write the appraisals.
If you want to avoid tension, awkwardness, or outright arguments with your employees during performance appraisal meetings, do your homework. Read past appraisals. Read as many past appraisals as you can get your hands on.
The first time most of us wrote performance appraisals as a new manager, we had no real clue how to what we were doing. I am sure I would cringe if anyone made me look at the appraisals I wrote in my first management position. After a few years, though, we develop a sense for what is expected of us and how we prefer to do them. Like any new task, a little experience makes it feel familiar.
When you switch roles, the latter is just as likely as the former to land you in hot water with your employees. Just as you have developed certain assumptions about how performance appraisals are written, employees have developed their own assumptions about what to expect. Your assumptions are not going to match your employees' assumptions. Any time you and your employee have conflicting expectations about how a thing will go, you are in for trouble.
The solution to this problem is obvious: understand your employees' assumptions about performance appraisals. To do that, simply review as many previous performance appraisals as you can.
Getting your hands on your employees' past appraisals is easy, though virtually no one ever does it. Just contact HR and ask. It will be unusual, but it should be welcomed. Here is how to spin the request.
More than anything else, HR wants to avoid anyone making waves. It's not that HR wants to avoid work. It's that they are extremely risk-averse. Anything new is something that an employee could take issue with. Your way of writing appraisals may be objectively better than the do-nothing boss who was in your position for 10 years before you. To HR, that change still represents the possibility of a complaint, no matter how much of an improvement it is.
So when you ask for your employees' performance appraisals, just couch it in terms of consistency:
"Hi [HR contact], how are things? Busy as ever? ... Yea, I hear that! Anyway, I'm wondering if you could help me out with something. Would it be possible for you to send me the about 5 years' worth of appraisals for each of my employees? As you know, I'm new to my current role. I know performance appraisals are still about 3 months away, but I'm trying to get a head start. I want to make sure that those meetings go as smoothly as possible. I also know that it can be jarring to have a new manager, especially when it comes to appraisals. Suddenly, the whole appraisal looks completely different: the way they write it, the aspects of the job they focus on, everything.
I want to avoid being that kind of boss as much as possible. I'd like to have a look at past appraisals so that I have a good, clear understanding of what my employees expect out of an appraisal. Obviously, I'm still going to write the appraisals based on what I personally have observed throughout the year. But if I review past years' appraisals, I can at least do it in a way that is familiar to the employee.
When I've done this in the past, I've found that employees are much more accepting of the appraisals, the appraisal meetings go more smoothly, and we are able to wrap up the process and move on more easily. So would you mind helping me out?"
With that explanation, HR should be delighted to assist.
Once you have the appraisals, review them for two things: what past managers wrote about, and how they wrote it. Some managers and appraisals systems expect detailed narratives, others bullet points, still others no explanation of the scores at all. You will want to know what your employee's are used to. While I don't recommend that you ape a badly written appraisal, it is politically smart to alter your own appraisal style to match employees' expectations at least somewhat. You may still choose to write more or less than past managers, or write it in a different way. Simply knowing that you are making a change is valuable information, however.
Second, it is vital to know what past managers focused on in employee appraisals. This is obvious for poor performers. Have these issues been addressed in the past? How much? In how many appraisals? The previous boss may have ignored some issues that you will need to touch on in this coming appraisal, but you will be more prepared knowing that one way or the other.
The content of past appraisals is even more important to know for good and excellent employees. The first time you do an appraisal, you are not going to know what matters most to that employee. People have pride tied up in diverse and specific things. Some people are extremely proud of their creativity but see "professionalism" as a fairly meaningless metric. For others, being perceived as professional is central to their identity. Past managers have already made the mistake of ignoring the thing that matters most to that particular employee. You can see in the appraisals what things they focus on and intuit that those metrics are things you'd better spend time on as well.
Our script for HR says it right there. If you look up past appraisals, you are going to have less work and fewer fights on your hands. Virtually every boss writes appraisals assuming their way is the right way. Better bosses read past appraisals because they know that the "right way" depends on context and perspective.