The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the UK’s national broadcaster, employs over 21,000 people across various operational and commercial divisions in the UK and worldwide. 
 
In 2020, the BBC had a highly flexible version of the annual appraisal. Jackie Westerman, Senior HR Business Partner at the BBC, explains that there was a belief among leaders that this “just wasn't right for a contemporary modern creative organisation”. Although it was applied well in pockets, it was inconsistent and performance was not discussed as part of everyday life across the organisation. The BBC wanted to get the best out of employees and make it a more attractive organisation to potential recruits, through a climate of high performance and excellent employee development opportunities. It wanted to reinvigorate its performance management practices, putting people at the centre of the process.

This case study demonstrates how evidence gathered was used to navigate this complex process,  and how the approach helped the HR team influence stakeholders and implement its decisions.

What evidence was used?

A starting point was to look at other organisations’ practices and general trends in performance management. Although this was interesting, many examples were not relevant to the BBC’s work and organisational culture. The evidence-based approach drew together:

  • stakeholder views: discussion with stakeholder groups, including senior leaders, managers, trade union representatives and diversity network groups
  • organisational data: management information, such as key performance indicators (KPIs) and the uptake of performance development reviews, staff survey data and employee focus groups
  • professional expertise: insights from HR leaders, in particular from Jackie Westerman, who, at the time, was doing her MSc in organisational psychology, through Jackie’s academic networks and through fellow HR professionals at the BBC
  • scientific literature: literature on performance management, in particular through Westerman’s MSc dissertation on the subject.

What insights did the evidence provide?

The HR team and stakeholders reached consensus early on that a key challenge was to get employees and their managers more engaged with performance management practices. But mandating more frequent performance appraisals was not considered enough – there would be a risk of simply ‘doing it badly more often’. Rather, it was felt that employees and their managers needed to reflect more deeply and openly about their work, the impact that they were having, short-term improvements they could make, and their longer-term career development.

The team also realised that to drive a high-performance culture, performance reviews needed to feel fair, positive and useful to employees:

“[We are very aware] how we want people to feel when they come out of this discussion – we want them to feel focused, energised, excited about the work that they need to do,” said Jackie Westerman.

What action was taken?

The BBC introduced a six-monthly meeting between each employee and their team leader. The main aim was for this to be a high-quality, two-way, reflective discussion about three things: job goals, performance feedback and career development. Making this shift involved other complementary changes, such as:

  • prompting employees to take a lead in setting their goals or targets
  • a greater focus on recent successes, current challenges and lessons for future performance
  • less of a focus on assessing past performance
  • removing standardised performance ratings.

The changes were enabled through webinars and other training and development.

Results were extremely positive in both quality and quantity. For example, whereas previously, only a small proportion of employees had performance reviews with their managers, the first round of the new approach saw 85% of employees having them, subsequently rising to 91%. Employee survey data showed increases in the proportion of employees reporting having clear goals, helpful feedback and discussions about career development. And anecdotally, the HR team saw much more positive attitudes towards performance review conversations. 

How did an evidence-based approach help?

Drawing on and synthesising the four sources of evidence helped the team navigate a complex topic. As Jackie Westerman said:

“I very rarely find an absolute answer in the scientific evidence. It’s always nuanced... [and depends on] context. Each source has strengths and weaknesses. It’s that amalgamation of those four sources which enables you to come up with something which is relevant to your organisation.”

The evidence-based approach clearly helped the HR team influence stakeholders. Performance management is often a sensitive topic, and it clearly had interest and strong views throughout the BBC. The evidence-based approach enabled the team to justify and ultimately carry through its decisions. As Jackie Westerman described:

“I was able to present it in a neutral way, saying: ‘This is the design that we have, that I’ve put together for these reasons.’ And after the discussion, I presented senior leaders with an evidence pack... [summarising the research] and some of the organisational data. Then we had a follow-up meeting and [a senior leader] actually said: ‘I can see it. So let’s stick with your design.’”

Although time-consuming, the evidence-based approach was found worthwhile:

“I have found it to be a lot of work and quite lonely work as well at times. But what I have found is that the quality of the design [you end up with] speaks for itself. You can do some elements of being more evidence-based without having to do the whole comprehensive process, but for us, the time invested has absolutely paid dividends in the outcomes that have been achieved... Knowing that what you have designed is absolutely drawing on the very best evidence available at that point – there’s a lot of professional and personal satisfaction in doing that.”

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