“Appraisals don’t work,” says former BBC HR director Lucy Adams

Lucy Adams, former BBC HR director
Lucy Adams, former BBC director of HR. Photo: Tal Cohen/REX

Lucy Adams, the former HR director of the BBC, has slammed the annual appraisal process, claiming they don’t work and instead strike fear into the hearts of employees.

“Spring is the season of PMT: performance management tension,” she told an audience at an event in London.

Adams, who left the BBC 10 days ago after enduring criticism for her role during the high-profile pay-off scandal at the organisation, said that the assumption that appraisals increased employees’ productivity and engagement was a “myth”.


Video courtesy of JLA

She urged the audience that if their HR departments were putting them under pressure to complete appraisals to tell them: “Why should I? They don’t work.”

She cited neuroscientific research that shows how workers’ brains respond to having their sense of status or certainty challenged, and how our reactions to feeling threatened kick-start the flight mechanism in our brains.

“The words ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ have the same effect on you as someone running up behind you in a dark alley,” she said.

She also referred to the fact that most managers and employees hate doing appraisals, and how relying on an annual feedback process made them less effective. A survey by Badenoch & Clark in late 2012 echoed this view, suggesting that more than one-third of UK workers thought appraisals were simply a tick-box exercise.

Adams, who described herself as “a recovering HR director”, said a better approach would be to focus on leadership capability, and to ensure that managers “know the people on their team and what motivates them, enabling them to tailor their own reward framework to get the most out of them”.

The BBC announced today that Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth, currently group HR director at Amey, would replace Adams in August 2014.

33 Responses to “Appraisals don’t work,” says former BBC HR director Lucy Adams

  1. chscott 16 Apr 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    ‘A recovering HR director’? Is this 1st April?

    • Motley Blogger 19 Apr 2014 at 4:50 am #

      I thought it was clever, but maybe only because I am one, too.

  2. cesaria 16 Apr 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    It will be interesting to see if she accepts another the role where appraisals are conducted annually.

  3. SpringInStep 16 Apr 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    I find it surprising that this lady is now on the conference circuit. I certainly wouldn’t wish to hear her views. One needs to be honest and have integrity during an appraisal – perhaps that too is an aspect she finds challenging to grasp.

  4. Blue Exile 16 Apr 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    Who on earth wants to hear what this woman has got to say on anything hr related given her collusion with the disgraceful goings on at the bbc??!! Just another content free , corporate politician looking for re next high profile, network enhancing gravy train. These people are totally shameless.

    • Motley Blogger 19 Apr 2014 at 4:49 am #

      I do.

  5. Anonymous 16 Apr 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    Appraisals do work… And they bring superb results…

  6. dennisc200 17 Apr 2014 at 1:27 am #

    An incoming Human Resources Director I know well, asked one of her soon to be first line managers, how he rated his employees. The first line manager told the incoming Human Resources Director that he based his employees’ annual ratings on how well they dressed. Needless to say, this Human Resources Department was a shambles. The first line manager was soon demoted back to an HR Specialist Position position. If you do not have an annual rating system, how do you reward, promote, set appropriate pay etc. ? Perhaps, we can replace the annual rating process with a Ouija Board. I am fed up with people expecting a stress free workplace. If work was fun, we would go to work even if we weren’t paid. I notice that many managers I have encountered have real difficulties dealing with confrontational situations like giving an employee a less than glowing annual rating. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

    • Anonymous 17 Apr 2014 at 8:54 am #

      I agree, feedback is critical, but i believe there is a better way… why distill performance feedback to an *annual* conversation? Would you only ask your partner how they’re feeling once a year? :) I believe that “little and often” is the key, giving evidential feedback throughout the year, from managers, peers, perhaps customers, and then if there’s a desire to tie this into annual compensation review, aggregate the datapoints obtained through the year to feed into an annual summary. It removes the “ceremony” of the annual process, it makes feedback more timely (and so hopefully more relevant), and infuses a culture of coaching and feedback into everyday work, rather than only thinking of it once a year.

      • dennisc200 17 Apr 2014 at 12:28 pm #

        I agree completely with what you have written. An employee should never be surprised to receive a poor annual rating if performance counseling took place throughout the entire rating period. In fact, I was an HR Specialist in a large organization that required periodic counseling throughout the year and a formal written mid-year progress review. This was written in our collective bargaining agreement. Employees whether excellent, good, satisfactory, marginal or poor performers should have a clear idea through out the rating period where they stand regarding their performance.

        By the way, I think like many posters that this woman is utterly clueless. She symbolizes “the trust fund mentality” of the BBC. Businesses in the UK and elsewhere have to make a profit. The BBC gets its funding through a forced tax on the citizenry of the UK. How easy it is for someone with her background to oppose annual ratings. Who needs to worry about employee performance, when you have a steady income through forced taxation, LOL ?

    • Motley Blogger 19 Apr 2014 at 4:54 am #

      Annual performance reviews are hated because (a) people are rating on the wrong items, (b) employees do not see objectivity, nor do they participate in defining and agreeing to expectations, and (c) most reviews don’t include an evaluation of the manager’s evaluation of employees.

      • dennisc200 19 Apr 2014 at 5:02 pm #

        Motley Blogger, only on a UK Human Resources Website would an article this ridiculous be published. A disproportionate (compared to many other countries) number of people in the UK have trouble dealing with confrontational situations. Hence, the strong feelings on giving annual ratings. I call this the “Harold Shipman Syndrome.” The “good Doctor” was able to get away with murdering elderly patients for so long because no one was willing to confront the “good Doctor.” Doctor Shipman’s mobility statistics were abysmal, and the authorities should have launched a full scale investigation years before they did, but they did not. It was not until a young doctor of Indian or Pakistani Ancestry decided that something was terribly wrong, and forced the authorities to investigate the “good Doctor.” Apparently, the young doctor did not share the confrontation aversion of many of his fellow citizens. Could it be because the young doctor shared more cultural traits common to Indians or Pakistanis than the English? The aversion to confrontation situations can be a good and bad thing. The aversion to confrontation is one of the main reasons I believe that the UK has a low violent crime rate which is an excellent result indeed. The aversion to confrontational situations allowed the UK Unions years ago to nearly wreck the economy years ago as companies and governments caved in to the unions to avoid continuing confrontational situations.
        In my own country (US), there are not enough people who are averse to confrontational situations; hence,one of the main reasons for a higher violent crime rate than the UK. People blame the murder rate in the US on the proliferation of guns. I am a Liberal Democrat and support all of the gun control proposed laws, but I think the left misses the point. It is cultural traits towards confrontation that matter more. Guns are the method, not the cause. If all of the guns in the US were removed tomorrow, we could perhaps see the law of unintended consequences take center stage. The murder rate could go higher as people perceive a false sense of security because of the removal of all of the guns, and therefore act more confrontational.
        Some countries seem to get the level of confrontation correct, but even in these countries there are “lone wolfs” like Norway’s Anders Breivik to upset the normal way of life.

        • Motley Blogger 19 Apr 2014 at 5:25 pm #

          Interesting thoughts on confrontation, but that is only part of the problem in the USA regarding reviews (BTW, I am a born and bred U.S. citizen. I follow the CIPD because I find British HR quirky and more than occasionally humorous (note the Brit spelling!))

    • Stephen 5 May 2014 at 8:44 am #

      “I am fed up with people expecting a stress free workplace. If work was fun, we would go to work even if we weren’t paid.”
      This is an appalling statement.
      If you work in HR then I think you should seriously reevaluate your outlook as this belief will have a dangerous impact on many of your coworkers.
      There is a sense of hypocrisy about your post to boot.
      You admonish others for wanting a stress free workplace yet you are happy to have a lazy one-size-fits-all morale crushing rating system rather than work at a better way.

      • Scottr350 5 May 2014 at 2:12 pm #

        Stephen you must live in la la land, or are you medicated ? It is called work because it is work. Fun is called fun because it is fun. In return for accomplishing tasks and putting up with stress, people receive a pay check. Generally speaking (but not always) jobs with higher levels of stress receive higher levels of pay. You don’t grasp the very concept of work, do you ? Let me guess you live in the UK, and you work for the government. You need to get a grasp on reality.

  7. Daniel Kitchener 17 Apr 2014 at 9:20 am #

    This is certainly music to the ears of anyone concerned with effective talent management. The traditional appraisal not only strikes fear into the hearts of all, as Adams suggests, but it is also a completely inaccurate measurement of performance. Assessing employee capability on an annual basis gives no indication of their ongoing performance level or progression, meaning that managers are left to assess their people against their past performance, not their current abilities. For the employee the assessment generates no real value or career progression, and the assessor is left to attempt to make development decisions with very limited and redundant data.

    The recommendation to promote employees who display the right capabilities during fair and evidence-based assessment is absolutely spot on. Each role comes with its own very specific skill set, and leaders/higher level roles require a completely different set of capabilities. Managers need to have the coaching knowledge and skills to provide their people with the right support and help them to improve their performance. This is something that an advanced and evidence-based forms of assessment can help to ensure, but not only identifying those with the necessary skill, but also providing the information needed to give targeted development and bring employees up to full competency.

    • cping500 15 Jul 2014 at 1:21 pm #

      That is a very complicated way of saying the promotion is a selection decision. and previous managers are as useful as references. Not

  8. Peter Maskens 17 Apr 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Well the comments have certainly caused debate……..and that is surely a good thing.
    Employee Reviews should give feedback on past & present performance and set goals and achievements required for the future based on any areas of concern/poor performance and on the needs of the department/business/customer. There should be guidance to the employee receiving their review of what support they will have to achieve these goals/improvements. Goals should relate to an individuals needs but also to business results. Simply telling someone good/bad points is a waste of time if you aren’t going to deal with them. If you are then going to give them a pay rise or a bonus each time that would seem commercially incompetent as well as unfair. If each time they get a review/bonus then of course this becomes and expectation and then the employee doesn’t really care about the review other than what financial reward they will receive as a result of it.
    Ticking boxes to get a pay review is not my experience of ‘appraisals’. But I work in an industry where you are not guaranteed an annual review/pay rise!
    Pay reviews are not a discussion at ‘appraisal time’ they are discussed at ‘budget time’. You can be encouraged to do better in your current job (we all can!) before you are rewarded or promoted into another. keeping you excited in your present role is a responsibility of your line manager and should be supported and helped by HR (us!). The rest of the team will then see HR as valuable rather than systems driven.
    If an ‘appraisal’ is a process rather than a mgt tool then it will be seen as waste of time as it will only be dusted off in 12 months time.
    Giving employees performance feedback is essential for excellent customer service so needs to be continuous or do we only care every 12 months.
    Care needs to be taken that mgrs. are well trained to conduct appraisals and deal with issues that arise and manage the follow on actions. Often the process and the form are fine it is the quality of the discussion that is limited and the lack of action that cause problems and negativeness. Again that is for HR to drive.
    Thanks for raising……… I don’t usually comment on these discussions so well done!

  9. Steve Phillips 17 Apr 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Lucy’s comments are very welcome to those of us in OD consulting who help organisations come to terms with the idea that Best Practice often isn’t such a good idea after all! Appraisals, like many other examples of HR orthodoxy, are a way of institutionalising managers NOT doing their job on a day-to-day basis. I have heard it described instead as Planned Infrequency. Instead of many things, like feedback and development and engagement, being a managers day-to-day job, the orthodoxy is to make them systems, programmes and processes instead. And then to excuse that by saying it is “… a step in the right direction and once it is a process it will become a practice”. However in practice this approach sends the message that these critical performance development responsibilities are a) NOT the manager’s day-to-day job, b) somebody else’s responsibility, c) a process to comply with rather than believe in, own and embody with conviction. It is very encouraging to hear someone of Lucy’s experience recognising that these norms of the profession need to be challenged and their limitations and unintended consequences appreciated.

    • John Whitefoot 8 May 2014 at 8:37 am #

      Steve, No offense intended to you or your colleagues in OD consulting. Just a thank you for borrowing my watch and telling me the time :)

  10. KP 17 Apr 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Suggests their line managers aren’t trained properly or held accountable for doing them effectively – because they do work if done well!!

  11. Martin W. 17 Apr 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    I’ve been saying this for years!! The trouble is that the concept of the annual appraisal is so ingrained in most organisational culture that no-one – least of all HR – ever considers there might be a better way.

    For a competent leader, performance management is something that’s ongoing, with employees’ output and behaviours reviewed regularly and informally. If an employee is delivering what’s expected of them, there’s absolutely no point in making them jump through hoops each year to provide ‘evidence’ of their achievements. Praise and recognition should be a continuous process too, and under-performance similarly managed.

    In my experience, the appraisal process is usually riddled with favouritism and unfairness, as managers seek to find ways to reward the employees they like rather than those that actually perform. Other than the favoured few, I’ve come across very few colleagues who consider it a motivational process for the very reasons that Lucy Adams points out – yet HR departments cling doggedly to the appraisal system (‘because we’ve always done it that way’) and refuse to even contemplate more imaginative and fairer alternatives.

    Well done Lucy for pointing out the elephant in the room!

  12. dennisc200 17 Apr 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    I worked for the Federal Government in the US for 32 years. My last 24 years were as a Human Resources Specialist primarily as an LR Specialist. I started as a GS-4 seasonal employee and retired as a GS-14. I received ten grade promotions in my career. I worked hard, and I accepted every work challenge with enthusiasm. I worked well with my colleagues. I readily helped others with their work challenges. I was a model employee. I usually received outstanding performance appraisals and monetary awards. I had no problem with annual ratings. The individuals who have a problem with annual ratings are average , marginal or poor performers.

    Lucy Adams has a character trait that I find is very common in far too many managers. The trait is the fear on confrontation with others. Her solution is to avoid the confrontation by ending annual ratings. Managers get additional pay to do a job, and they need to do the job, period.

    • cping500 15 Jul 2014 at 1:18 pm #

      I notice you uses the word ratings Did you fit them on a Bell Curve and sack the lowest ten %… sorry help them to move on to jobs that would ‘fit them better’?

  13. Emily Perry - Purple Cubed 17 Apr 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Whilst on one hand we agree with Lucy Adams that ‘appraisals’ as we know them don’t always work; they are a fundamental part of the employee journey and it is absurd to suggest that managers challenge their HR departments on this matter.

    What would have been more helpful is if Lucy took a step back and focused on the crux of the matter which is why don’t appraisals work in some organisations.

    Perceptions at all levels about performance review must be changed – turning them from a fearsome, “what you’ve done wrong” annual conversation into a regular positive, future focused discussion around what individuals would like from their career, what their aspirations are and how the business can support them to achieve. By a manager adopting this approach, the words “Can I give you some feedback?” will
    be viewed as personal development, rather than criticism.

    And let’s not forget the wealth of information a great performance review can
    provide to managers and the business as a whole – who wouldn’t want to enhance their employer brand, know where their learning and development budget could be targeted, or who was at risk of leaving and, on the flip, who are the future leaders
    of the business – saving large sums and helping improve the bottom-line.

    Yes, leadership capability is critical, however what we need to be doing is positively promoting the HR department and the value it adds by putting processes like performance reviews in place. Once people know ‘What’s in it for me?’ combined with a simple approach to conducting the reviews by taking advantage of the technology available in this area then the workforce will view this regular conversation as their opportunity to drive their own careers forward, rather than leave it hanging in the hands of their managers.

  14. Ruth Steinholtz 17 Apr 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    Okay, I agree that appraisals are often done poorly and therefore they can be useless, or worse, they can be demotivating. However, I’m not sure that dispensing with them completely is the answer. Managers must learn to give constructive feedback, give credit where it is due and confront poor performance. If you eliminate appraisals altogether you are more likely to have less of this, rather than more. Isn’t the solution to help people understand the value of regular feedback (and I mean more regular than a semi annual performance discussion) and to help them develop the skills they need to do it properly – starting from the top?

    • cping500 15 Jul 2014 at 1:25 pm #

      Really you are saying that they are a substitute for managers managing. I fully agree but… MUST LEARN’? How?

  15. John Whitefoot 17 Apr 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    Ms Adams used to “appraise” me as I was one of her direct reports while we were colleagues at Serco. To be fair to Lucy as an HR Director and this is only my opinion, she only lacked one thing….Er, talent.

  16. Martin Moore 18 Apr 2014 at 8:33 am #

    What’s the story here? Asserting that appraisals are hard to get right and that conducting them in a way which motivates all whilst discriminating high from low performers and identifying talented individuals for development is hardly hot news. Appraisals are here to stay despite anything Lucy Adams says. The challenges around conducting them effectively will remain the same.

  17. Simon 23 Apr 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    Just stick to the basics, regular one to ones and informal on-the-go coaching coupled with a process linked to the organisations values and objectives does work! Just because someone that everyone has heard of says something controversial don’t make it true…

  18. DJBH 23 Apr 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    A simple appraisal process, carried out in a professional way by a competent manager is without doubt a positive. Of course those sorts of conversations should be regular and often and in some instances they are, and can produce great results.

    In many organisations managers are reluctantly pulled into an annual one and they struggle. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to work with those managers to get them done well. Key part of an HR strategy….

    Ms Adams opinion has most likely been reached by experiencing an over complicated, jargon filled, convoluted system.. I can only imagine that the BBC appraisal process wold be just that! Not convinced that its HR Director has much to teach the rest of us about simplicity and professionalism!

  19. Legend 28 Apr 2014 at 11:09 am #

    As somebody who suffered as both and appraiser and appraisee for years, I am of a strong opinion that they are counter productive and an unecessary distraction for all.
    Appraisal should be an ongoing process that involves free and open discussion between managers and those who report to them. I submitted self appraisals to my various managers over years only to find, without exception, a paraphrased version presented as their appraisal of me. I know of other people where issues were raised at appraisal time that had never beed raised before. It seems to me annual apparaisals were mostly used by managers as a cowardly way to avoid personal confrontation. We all knew what phrases to use, what boxes to tick and went to pains not to mark people too far down or too far up – all that was required was to satisfy HR that the forms were filled out so as to tick their box ! What was worse the salary reviews took place months later and seems to have no relevance to how you were ranked in the apparaisal. a
    Appraisals were a major reason why I took a consultative role rather than have people reporting to me and to avoid reciving worthless unconsidered reports written about me.

  20. B Profane 28 Apr 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    Lucy Adams doesn’t work anymore either.