It Is Time to End Performance Reviews

The problem with the way performance reviews are done in the federal government is the unholy alliance between job appraisals and financial incentives. They are built on the notion if you perform well you will receive monetary awards. This sounds good on paper. Unfortunately, it does not work in the real world. It creates this tense conversation between manager and employee, fraught with emotional land mines.

The unintended effect of performance reviews at the federal level is the creation of what I call the “comfortable middle.” Everyone, including high performers and low producers, are lumped into various stages of “satisfactory.” This punishes the high performers who are being undervalued. Low performers are overvalued and given the mistaken impression they do not need to improve. It reinforces the millennial value that everyone gets a trophy, which results in no one being happy and ultimately disengaged.

Performance issues are consistently ranked among federal employees as one of the most problematic concerns from the Best Places to Work in Federal Government Rankings. In 2014, three of the five questions in the survey that showed the biggest gap between responses of Senior Executives and their direct reports centered on performance concerns:

• In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with poor performers.
• Differences among performance are recognized in a meaningful way.
• Awards in my unit depend on how well employees perform in their jobs.

In my 25 years in the federal government, I do not know anyone who has anything good to say about performance reviews. Managers hate them as well as employees.

Simple brain science informs us that the standard mid-year and end-of-the-year performance reviews create these emotional conversations between supervisor and employee that undermine workplace security. The following feedback triggers have to be understood to get a clear picture of someone’s performance.

We all want to hear something good about ourselves. Performance reviews should concentrate on playing to employee strengths before addressing their weaknesses.

Performance reviews must be grounded in truthfulness, no matter if it is a glowing assessment or constructive feedback. At the end of the day, we have to work with our other colleagues and stay connected with our supervisors. The performance review has to be seen as an invitation to a brighter tomorrow.

Performance reviews should send the signal to the employees that they are the masters of their own ship. If I need improvement, point me in the right direction. If I surpassed expectations, stretch me to reach even higher next time. Unless radical improvement is needed, the supervisor should see their role as an equipper rather than a micromanager.

We want to be treated fairly and honestly and yet be recognized for our uniqueness as human beings. A one-size-fits-all evaluation may not work for everyone. It is important that individual yearly commitments are written in a way where expectations are clear and employees are playing to the ceiling of the strengths rather than the floor of their weaknesses.

Performance reviews are a big deal. They can influence a worker’s career, morale, family life and financial health. They should be done in a way that reinforces not only what they do in the workplace, but why they do it in the first place.

I have a radical idea about how to change the performance evaluation culture in the federal government. Let’s take the supervisor out of the equation and evaluate employees through their colleagues and customers. Let’s crowd source performance. Who is in the best position to really see the day to day activities of employees other than the people they serve.

The movie industry understands crowdsourcing. They discovered that evaluations of their films by moviegoers were more accurate than performance predictions made by industry critics.

Farewell supervisors and hello crowdsourcing. There is a new narrative in town. I give it 4 stars.

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Janet Ryser

It is definitely time to end performance reviews. I work at the State level of government. The Division, Personal and Agency goals are almost moronic. Tracking Methods are “stories” obtained to use to review effectiveness and completeness of service delivery. If you do not have “documented stories” you are perceived as not fulfilling that particular goal. Now, if in fact we get verbal accolades, they do not count as they are not documented by a employer story. So now if we want a written statement of what is expected, we have to say, we would appreciate it if you could put this in writing so that it is documented. Ah Ha, this is the start of the game playing. My comment on my last performance review was: The PMI Evaluation System has no merit at all. Providing a self evaluation means absolutely nothing as the supervisor does not discuss the difference in how we rated ourselves as to how she rated us. This is truly a game of favorites and is not objective in any manner and is totally one sided. I reiterated all that our office has done to just try and do our normal job assignments everyday and then get more projects given to us, so in essence we work triage every single day because we are overwhelmed with clients and very short staffed. This has led to very low moral, exhaustion, stress and anxiety knowing that we have to now set goals for succession planning. This is an exercise in futility as there is no money for training, or travel or anything else. We have been tasked once again with cutting waste and budget concerns. We have just recently gone through this drill due to budget and have truly gone bare bones. Not to say that there isn’t something else to try and evaluate for savings. The problem that we, our office team has is that the politicians believe we are stupid. We already know that there is money in “OUR States rainy day fund, and other budget locations”. We know that the politicians are just trying to pad their next step up in their political world. So until we have true and total transparency with factual data, we live in the nightmare of performance reviews that are worthless.

Mark Hammer

Like a lot of puzzling things in life, performance reviews evolved for good reasons. Trouble is, those reasons don’t exist in all job contexts, and exist less frequently in many public sector contexts.

For performance appraisals to be of any value:
1) What counts as “performance” has to be quantifiable, and amenable to benchmarks. *Some* of us have jobs like that, but not all of us do. In my own job, there’s not much to count. My supervisor has a rudimentary sense of when I am regularly adding value, and when there seems to be a lull. But it is nigh impossible to pit that against a standard.
2) The performance, or lack thereof, has to be directly attributable to the employee. Many of us work in jobs where we end up having to wait for someone else to make up their mind, who in turn has to wait for somebody else to meet and make a decision. Blaming or crediting the person at the end of that chain of command has little value, with respect to improving or fixing outcomes.
3) The performance has to be objectively assessable. When folks work together closely for long periods, it becomes very hard to surgically dissect their performance from their OCBs. They do a good job at their job, right? I mean last week they helped me out with that EXCEL macro that was driving me nuts.
4) As Richard rightly notes, maintaining social cohesion within a work unit IS important. So unless there is collective resentment towards a particular co-worker, appraisals are more likely to be bland at worst, because everybody still has to work together come Monday morning. Mind you, if the workplace happens to be one where there is constant turnover, and group functioning is of much less concern, then reviews can be as harsh as is needed.

If one can meet those conditions, review away! But if you can’t meet them, don’t be surprised if you see little value in them.

Carol Davison

I’m a performance manager. Multi-level appraisal systems are required by law, so they won’t be going away. Original poster, and govloop.com., did you do your research before you posted this? I agree that employees need appropriate performance planning, coaching-not just “stop that, do this, do that”, development, specific appraisals and meaningful recognition. Building this into my organization’s performance management system increased our performance so much that our foreign competitors noticed and Britain, Canada, the Dutch, Ethiopia, South Korea, the Department of the Navy, the Equal Employment Opportunity Council, and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation copied it. Regarding peer reviews, do you really want the people in competition with you for promotion, appraisal scores, awards, writing your performance appraisal? I would expect them to try to trip their peers up more than ever which would result in further undermining individual or organizational performance. Customer input is a great idea. However the one employee that got the best input didn’t perform at his grade level, so he should have been reclassified to a lower grade or fired. He also continuously sabotaged his peers. I wonder how he received such positive feedback. He continues to not perform to grade level and sabotage 8 years later.

Earl Rice

I will start with a tail of 2 years. Year before last, I worked hard, put in extra time (away from my family), worked through lunch time, came in early and stayed late. I saw new programs through to their completion and full implementation, under great adversity. And went through untold heart ache and abuse to get things accomplished. Came close to ruining my health, etc. And received a very high performance review and the payment of $500, which the IRS took $150 of it. And, I had to ask myself if it was worth it. Was the organization better, yes. Did I make a lasting impact, yes. And, I saw others that accomplished half as much, and get $1,000. At that point, I had to ask myself once again, was it worth it? I came to the conclusion, that it really wasn’t worth it. The $500 was worth about 14 hours. I did a quick estimate, and I had put in well 200 hours of extra effort (comes out to $2.50 an hour). Financially, I would have done better as a part time greater at Walmart. It’s not that the evaluation systems are bad, it is more that the supervisors writing them are not capable of utilizing them properly. That is where they key to it is. The military has utilized evaluation reports for decades, and have made their systems work, and produce viable results. There are no such things as bonuses, unless you want to count earned promotions as bonuses. This year, I have my health, have had more time with my family and have a better life style. And, no I didn’t get a bonus, but then no one else has yet either. We must ask ourselves a more relevant question, can the supervisors in the Civil Service properly utilize the evaluation systems they have? That is the real question.

Peter Gillis

I’m the performance awards board administrator for my organization. I sit in on, but don’t participate in, all the discussions about employee rankings. I agree with a lot of the comments posted here… particularly the need for quantifiable measures. I think this can be challenging in organizations whose raison d’etre is to create policy, but this challenge isn’t insurmountable.

For example, there are something like 13 required training courses we all must take. PII, sexual harassment, etc. In my opinion, if you didn’t complete your all your required training, you shouldn’t receive a top performance grade. If it’s REQUIRED, and you don’t do it, what are the consequences? The consequence is you don’t get a top grade. Similarly, supervisors have performance appraisal requirements… establish a performance plan within 30 days of the new fiscal year, etc. If you don’t do this, you don’t receive a top grade. Additionally, you can review the appraisals of employees BEFORE you review supervisors. That way you can get an idea of how well the supervisor fulfilled their responsibilities.

My point is that there are measureable activities that we could use to influence the process. Many organizations (including mine) don’t take advantage of these benchmarks.