The Performance of Performance Appraisal Systems: A Theoretical Framework for Public Organizations

AuthorMarta Barbieri,Lorenza Micacchi,Francesco Vidè,Giovanni Valotti
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2023, Vol. 43(1) 104 –129
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X211043560
The Performance of
Performance Appraisal
Systems: A Theoretical
Framework for Public
Marta Barbieri1, Lorenza Micacchi1,
Francesco Vidè1, and Giovanni Valotti2
Performance appraisal (PA) plays a strategic role in public sector human resource
management (HRM), acting as a driver for better performance. Drawing from
previous theoretical research on the social context of performance appraisal systems
and their effectiveness, the study develops a generalizable theoretical framework for
classifying performance appraisal systems according to their structural and process
proximal variables: purpose, rating source, and structured face-to-face feedback
sessions. Through a multiple case study analysis, the theoretical framework has been
applied to a sample of Italian PA systems for senior civil servants, aiming to explore
the relationship between the structural and process proximal variables of PA systems
and rating discriminability, intended as a measurement of performance effectiveness.
The results show that the framework accurately represents the variation of the
design of performance appraisal systems in the Italian context, highlighting the central
role played by multi-source feedback and face-to-face rater-ratee interactions in
promoting rating discriminability.
performance appraisal, performance appraisal systems, public administration, rating
discriminability, performance appraisal effectiveness
1SDA Bocconi School of Management, Milan, Italy
2Bocconi University, Milan, Italy
Corresponding Author:
Francesco Vidè, SDA Bocconi School of Management, Via Lampugnano, 156, Milan 20151, Italy.
1043560ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X211043560Review of Public Personnel AdministrationBarbieri et al.
Barbieri et al. 105
Performance appraisal (PA) systems represent a distinctive function of human resource
management (HRM), used to measure the performance of individuals along a given set
of dimensions (DeNisi & Murphy, 2017). It specifically refers to the assessment of
employee work with a view to outline and foster their performance by defining indi-
vidual strengths and weaknesses (Daley, 1992), and is recognized as one of the most
powerful tools for managing human resources (Murphy & Cleveland, 1995).
Despite its relevance, the academic literature has struggled to define a unique
measure of PA effectiveness (Rubin & Edwards, 2020), defined as the multidimen-
sional construct or ultimate criterion for mapping the success of PA systems (Cardy
& Dobbins, 1994). Measures of PA effectiveness range from quantitative criteria,
such as rating accuracy (Ikramullah et al., 2016) to qualitative ones, related to
employee reactions (Murphy & Cleveland, 1995). Furthermore, measuring PA effec-
tiveness within the public sector is rendered harder by the administrative pursuit of
ambiguous goals (Rainey & Jung, 2015), which are not easily translated into objec-
tive performance measurements, both at the organizational and individual level
(Huber, 1983). Research on public PA systems has primarily focused on merit pay,
which rarely results in better organizational performance and increased employee
motivation (Park & Berry, 2014; Perry et al., 2009), since public employees tend to
be less extrinsically motivated than their private sector counterparts (Belle &
Cantarelli, 2015).
Moreover, previous contributions have relied on different characteristics of PA sys-
tems to explain their effectiveness. Among the numerous variables considered and
nomenclatures adopted, scholars have attempted to introduce theoretical systematiza-
tions (DeNisi & Murphy, 2017), focusing on the social context of the PA and distin-
guishing between structural and process proximal variables of PA systems (Levy &
Williams, 2004).
Drawing upon the contribution by Levy and Williams (2004), this study develops a
theoretical framework for assessing PA systems in public sector organizations, analyz-
ing both the structural and process proximal variables of appraisal systems, as well
as their potential impact on rating discriminability. In doing so, the study intends to
address the research gaps that characterize extant scholarship on PA systems.
Differently from previous research on this topic, this contribution addresses PA effec-
tiveness from an organizational standpoint. Whereas the literature mainly investigates
rating discriminability either at the level of the individual raters (e.g., based on their
ability to differentiate the ratings) or within a single organization (e.g., comparing rat-
ings across raters within the same organization), this article compares rating discrim-
inability across different organizations.
Furthermore, as opposed to other academic systematizations focused on single
variables of PA systems (e.g. Abu-Doleh & Weir, 2007), this study addresses the fol-
lowing research question: How does a specific combination of both structural and
process proximal variables of PA systems affect rating discriminability in different
public organizations? With this aim, the study provides a theoretical framework drawn

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