Magazine excerpt: Happy Talk

This month, Henry Stewart asks if we should abolish the annual performance appraisal.

I often ask audiences how often they receive feedback in their job. The most common answer is “once a year”, at the annual appraisal.

30 years ago I went to a seminar promoting the idea of appraisals. I still remember the story of the office clerk who didn’t have any form of appraisal and never got feedback on their work. They worked hard and felt they were doing a good job. It was only when the company needed to cut back and the clerk was the first in line to go, that they discovered they had been seen as underperforming for years.

It made sense to me. I was in my fifth job but had never had any form of useful feedback. The only time I’d got any clear picture of what my manager thought of my performance was the time I got sacked after
12 days in a new role – and even then it was just that “we don’t like your attitude”. Ouch.

Appraisals date back a lot further than 30 years. One observer in the Wei dynasty of 3rd-century China was able to comment on their version: “The Imperial Rater seldom rates men according to their merits, but always according to his likes and dislikes.”

Some would say that little has changed since then. Performance appraisals in practice seem to be generally disliked by employees and managers. As Sophie Bryan put it at this year’s Happy Workplaces conference, “In 20 years in HR, I’ve never come across an appraisal process that didn’t make me want to bash my head against a wall.”

Performance appraisals in practice seem to be generally disliked by employees and managers.

Too often, managers have feedback to give and think, “I’ve got the appraisal in two months, I’ll feedback then.” Imagine the equivalent in sport. Imagine being a coach to a tennis player or a footballer, spotting something they could improve and deciding to tell them at the end of the year. If people need feedback, they need it now.

At Happy, we like to think we are quite good at appraisals. We have a ‘no surprises’ rule (there should be no negative issues that have not already been raised) and the aim should be that sta look forward to them. However when we surveyed our people this year, no less than 91% supported abolishing the annual appraisal.

We are not alone. General Electric famously abolished annual performance reviews for its 300,000 staff, and many other companies are following suit. The replacement is simple: regular one-to-one conversations and a coaching role for the manager. Make sure your people get feedback – and not just from the manager – a lot more than once a year. 

Move from something nobody likes to something they look forward to.

This is a feature from August’s TJ magazine. You can get a 3 month trial subscription, free, here.


About the author

Henry Stewart believes that if your people are happy, everything else will follow. Find out more and read his blog at or @happyhenry




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