Is “Merit Promotion” a Euphemism?

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This topic contains 23 replies, has 10 voices, and was last updated by  Steve Ressler 8 years, 5 months ago.

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  • #104358

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Is the Feds’ Merit Promotion System really about “merit”? Sure, each organization has a “Merit Promotion Plan” but aren’t those plans really just for show?

    Earlier this year, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) released a report in which they found 72 percent of the federal employees surveyed believe that government promotions were based on favoritism more than competence. Substantial percentages of employees believe that managers engage in favoritism when selecting employees, allocating work and developmental opportunities, and granting awards.” Is this news to those of us in the trenches?

    MSPB has promised to get more answers about the source of these perceptions — whether they stem from flawed practices or a lack of transparency — but what do you think?

  • #104404

    Steve Ressler
    Keymaster

    Would be interested to see similar stats from private sector if the same percentages hold true. My hypothesis is yes…that everyone thinks promotions are based on favoritism

  • #104402

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    The FedCoach said he would put his money on the information vacuum between Fed employees & management. He argues that “transparency” is needed within the government; he thinks it would help if managers made promotion decisions as clear as possible to avoid having misperceptions becoming the reality for the workforce.” I disagree with this assessment.

    I’m in the trenches on a daily basis with Award requests and Promotion recommendations so I see the junk managers pass off as justification for their requests. That’s why I’m fairly confident when I say that, in most organizations, the good-ole-boy system is alive ‘n well and surviving in the “Merit Promotion System”.

  • #104400

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    1) ALL managers want employees who will fit well within their work unit, and won’t “blow up in their faces”. No manager want someone whose performance will cause problems and embarassment for them. So, there is a natural inclination to hire and promote based on an intuitive sense of “merit”. That doesn’t mean it is always valid or accurate, but it IS the intent of the manager.

    2) MOST managers will rate goodness of fit juuuussstt below abilities/skills when they pick someone, and our own survey data indicates that candidates don’t realize managers place such a high premium on fit, preferring to think that stuff like their prior work experience and academic training is more critical to selection. Of course, this is one of those things that leads to senior management always replacing themselves with those just like them. “Different” is not a good fit.

    3) ALL merit systems are essentially “arms-length” protocols intended to provide a means for assuring that favouritism plays as small a role as possible, without necessarily looking too closely at the process. It’s a bit like giving your 16 year-old $50 for expenses for a 2-day school trip. Clearly, $50 places a limit on how reckless they can be, but will the money necessarily be wisely spent? Maybe, maybe not. But at least you haven’t given them your gold card.

    4) If managers had their way, there would actually be a lot more staffig actions that go against merit-assuring procedures, even as they are based on the manager’s desire to reward merit. MSPB put out a report in 2004 that looked at so-called “sham competitions”. These “shams” were defined as instances where the manager knew exactly who they needed in the job, but HR or someone else in authority said “No. You MUST post this and run it like a competition….for purposes of transparency.” The manager, of course, ends up hiring/promoting the person they wanted to. I have little doubt that in some instances, this was an employee who had hit the ceiling of their pay-grade ages ago, and the manager simply wanted to reclassify them higher in order to reward their performance.

    MSPB took the percentage of occasions that surveyed managers said they ran such sham processes, took managers’ estimates of how much time of theirs such a process normally takes, took the average pay grade of managers, and calculated an estimated annual cost to the federal system of around 240 million dollars in manager time to run them. Now, keep in mind that does not include the time spent on such processes by HR, nor the time spent by candidates who are stealing time from their employer to naively write the “perfect cover letter” for a process they cannot hope to succeed at, or who perhaps call in “sick” to study for or write exams, and the untold hours spent at the water cooler or lunch room bitching about a process that screwed them over. By my reckoning, sham competitions must cost the sytem a billion a year.

    Perhaps equally important, what emerges from such processes are precisely the sorts of attitudinal survey results we see reported in this thread: employees lose faith and trust in the staffing system. If you could buy that back for a billion a year it would be a bargain.

    We see here, in our own Canadian federal data, that a small nucleus of managers (no more than 10%) show signs that they have been “cornered” into running a competitive process that they didn’t really want to run (or felt they needed to), by an organization intent on presenting the outward signs of completely objective merit-based staffing. That does not mean the hiring was NOT merit-based, but as I say, when the regs are for arms-length monitoring, they can be pretty stiff.

    Note that a fair proportion of griping about staffing also comes from people who may have been acting in a higher-level position for some time, replacing someone who simply never returned to their job. Now, after 18-24 months in the job, the organization finally decides it needs to be staffed permanently, gets approval to do so, and the employee has to submit to the indignity of what they feel is applying for their own job, and the uncertainty of waiting for an answer at the end of a process that may take 4, 5, 6 months or longer. Not surprisingly, such individuals feel that posting and running a competition does NOT respect merit, because if they weren’t doing the job well all that time, why were they still in it?

    I might note that some managers responding to our survey tell us that in retrospect they were actually quite pleased with the outcome of running a competition that they may have initially felt was unwarranted. They tell stories of stumbling onto fresh talent that added tremendous value to the organization. So, it works both ways. Sometimes, managers want to skirt the protocol because they feel “transparent” staffing is not really needed in this instance, and it really isn’t. Other times, they get backed into doing the right thing, and are pleasantly surprised. The moral is that you can’t place your faith 100% in managerial judgment about what is needed to respect the merit principle.

    5) I recommend folks take a peek at the recent J.A.P. article summarized here: http://ioatwork.typepad.com/ as an introduction to how performance appraisals can become distorted.

    6) There is a modest-sized literature looking at managerial explanations for undesirable outcomes, and how that connects to perceived fairness by employees. Relaying undesirable outcomes is not something a great many people are particularly skilled at, whether managers or not, and “It’s not you, it’s me.” may not work any better in the office than it does on Seinfeld.

  • #104398

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    When it comes to Merit & Performance-based evaluative systems, “intention” & “reality” often find themselves diametrically opposed. It takes managers who have high scores in honesty & integrity to achieve the “intention” of such systems. It also requires performers to respect and have trust in their supervisors before they can take seriously and employ the constructive criticism that makes these types of systems work. Otherwise, as pointed out simply in the J.A.P. article by Rachel Marsh, one must seriously consider the “underlying motives when considering performance appraisal results”.

  • #104396

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    Then there is the weird stuff.

    When the Georgia public service attempted to introduce pay for performance, they quickly found that they had more performance to reward than they could afford. The net result was that performance appraisals tended to be downgraded, seemingly to avoid having to pay out. Not surprisingly, employees who had busted their hump for the promise of rewards, tended to sour when that effort was not recognized, leading to increases in turnover. Read about it here: Sanders, Robert M.. “GeorgiaGain or GeorgiaLoss?Public Personnel Management, Summer2004, Vol. 33 Issue 2, p151-164

  • #104394

    Nichole Henley
    Participant

    I can see both sides of the argument here. Why review everyone when you know who you want and who can do the job? But also, why not open the aperture and SEE if anytone else out there can do the job?

    I think it boils down to counseling management in HR. See what their target is, even if they have a selectee in mind, and let them know what their options are. Encourage interviews. Encourage hiring officials to document their selection procedures.

  • #104392

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Mark’s example of how Pay-for-Performance backfired for the Georgia Public Service is a fine example of how other-than-performance issues taint the purpose of Merit and Award programs. Human reactions and unexpected results are nearly impossible to screen out of a performance-based merit or award system. Thanks Mark!

  • #104390

    Thad Juszczak
    Participant

    About half of my government jobs/promotions were with people who didn’t know me, so there would not appear to be favoritism there. In the other half of the cases, I would like to think that they chose me because they knew I did good work.

    I do not know any government managers who practice personal favoritism, but many who practice professional favoritism. By that I mean, they hire people that they think will do a good job. They tend to favor people who will help them rather than someone who might not. The problem often comes when the choice is beween someone they know and someone they don’t know. Government managers are notoriously risk-adverse, so picking the devil-you-know probably seems preferable to a-pig-in-a-poke.

    I agree that any manager should be able to justify their selections, but I’ve often found that no amount of explanation is acceptable to someone who is being told that they are not as good as someone else. I certainly felt that way when I was not selected for a promotion, but I didn’t blame the selecting manager for favoritism, maybe just a lack of perception.

  • #104388

    Benjamin Dunlap
    Participant

    The private industry has no mandate to hire, fire or promote based on merit. Some individual companies may promote this but there should be no expectation that the best work merits the best reward.
    It is reasonable that a merit based system produces the best possible outcomes but in private industry, anecdotally, that the “best” way for advancement is to find a rising star one or two levels higher than you and work on their special projects to make sure that there are coat tails to ride into new positions or new vacancies.
    My personal experience is that many private companies are focused on maximizing short term profit. Personnel practices focus on short term gains rather than long term stability and growth. This pigeon holes good workers into the job they are good at and offers little room for promotion. I have personally met managers that see promotion as negatively as attrition and treat it similarly.
    My opinion regarding your original query is that there are few statistics collected on private industry because there is no mandate to be fair.

  • #104386

    Joey White
    Participant

    “Favoritism” seems to imply preference that is unjust. However, I think favoritism is often valid because the person being favored deserves to be the favorite.

    Having worked for private companies no bigger than 300, I suppose my perspective is very different from someone working in a large government agency. But either way, I think in many cases, favoritism and competence go hand-in-hand rather than being opposed to one another. In other words, the competent are the favorites.

  • #104384

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Due, in part, to the death of President Garfield at the hand of a spurned job-seeker, the Civil Service Act of 1883 and the Civil Service Commision were reestablished. The Act rendered it unlawful to fill various federal offices by the spoils system. It also gave rise to the principles that drive the Feds’ Merit Promotion System. The procedures developed and monitored by OPM to achieve “unfettered selection decisions” are founded on the requirement that the bases for employment decisions come solely from job-related criteria derived from legitimate position requirements which are defined by subject matter experts. OPM’s selection procedures require Fed employers to select from a list of “Best Qualified” applicants who have risen to the top based on the guidelines established for employment consideration (typically determined by the people making the selection decisions or recommendations). This is true whether the position is announced externally or solely to internal applicants. But, somewhere along the way, government hiring officials decided that their employment decisions should also be based on people they think will also do a good job. That’s not Merit Promotion in the Federal government; that’s favoritism. I appreciate the reasons they have for making such decisions but those reasons don’t comply with the rationale nor the law in place to protect against just such reasoning. “Preference” is unjust in Federal employment if it’s not derived from law. And that is not a euphemism.

  • #104382

    Joey White
    Participant

    Under this line of reasoning, all things being equal, if candidate A and B are virtually identical with the only exceptions being that candidate B has 2 more years experience in a comparable role than candidate A but candidate B has the personality of a cucumber, you would still have to go with candidate B. Never mind that a personality of a cucumber will create a draining work environment or may contribute to their actual work performance or that candidate B’s current job may be their professional ceiling. You would have to give them the job because of what’s on paper. I don’t think making hiring decisions based on what’s on paper alone is useful. I’ve interviewed numerous candidates whose paper resumes gave me very different impressions than what I found to be true in person.

  • #104380

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Flawed reasoning there, Joey. If candidate A and B are virtually identical, their years of experience are also identical because any experience beyond the one year required by the Feds to be basically qualified does not give candidate B extra points. That means that if candidate B “has the personality of a cucumber”, it’s not likely the candidate will survive the interview. All other things being equal between candidate A and B, it would be possible (and preferred) that the hiring manager select candidate A.

  • #104378

    Dawn Lautwein
    Participant

    I really like Mark’s assessment and agree with Joey that being favored can be deserved. Where I’ve seen problems, though, is where a manager is drawn to certain employees not really because they are more personable or better at a job or more cooperative, but because they have more outside interests in common. For instance, at my daughter’s job (and I may admittedly have a bias here), the young singles who went to the bar for happy hour regularly with the young managers seemed to get promoted faster than those with family commitments after hours. The business measured productivity and accuracy, but they didn’t seem to factor in. All perks were also geared toward incentives for most incompetent workers, too, which was disheartening. For instance, if you had been at 245% productivity and dropped to 240%, there was no raise, while someone at 50% productivity that moved up to 70% would get a large raise. Everyone warned her to not start out doing her best, but she started out eagerly and only sank to that level of thinking later. Those problems may all have been due to inexperienced managers, but it can happen at the other end with “the good ole boys” network types, too.

    There is a quote that I like, though, that fits well for the good manager who knows instintively who might best fit the job beyond the objective measures of productivity and education:

    “Not all that can be measured is important and not all that is important can be measured.”
    Albert Einstein

  • #104376

    Joey White
    Participant

    Einstein quote FTW!

  • #104374

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Your real-world example has made my point, Dawn. In a perfect world, hiring managers should be making their decisions based on the candidate’s fit with the org culture, the team, the work environment and trust that the screening process will produce those candidates who are best equipped, technically and experiencially, to perform well in the job. Prior to those interviews, however, hiring managers should still be sitting in the “neutral” position. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. In the real world, “merit” is more about exerting pressure on the people who handle the “screening process” to get them to push those candidates through who had the “in” with the hiring manager either because they went to the bar regularly with them or because nepotism took over, or because a candidate figured out some other way to pander to the desires of those hiring managers. It’s on those occasions when the “real-world” realities take hold and either dilute or destroy the principles of “merit”.

  • #104372

    Joey White
    Participant

    Granted, then unless you have a blatant situation where a candidate with 4 years of experience is hired for a position advertising that it requires 5, it seems almost impossible to show that favoritism is actually happening.

  • #104370

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Qualifying for Fed jobs doesn’t require more than 1 year of experience at the next lower grade level for the vacancy announced. “Merit Promotion” in the federal government has a very specific meaning that does not translate to private sector employment. It is guided by principles set forth in law that one might argue have been diluted or subrogated by favoritism.

  • #104368

    “Merit Promotion” seems like a redundancy to me. Shouldn’t all promotions be based on merit? I’m not saying that promotions based on favoritism don’t happen, but most managers are promoting a given individual who they think will help them best meet their objectives. Two thoughts come to mind. 1). For the 72%, many cannot objectively see their own capabilities. I’d be willing to bet that in many of these promotions, that if you surveyed 5 co-workers, at least 3 would have made the same selection the manager made. 2). Sometimes managers get it wrong. Just like referees or teachers or parents get it wrong. They tried to make the best decision, but they simply and frankly missed it. It wasn’t favoritism; they tried to make a decision based on merit. Their evaluation was in error, and they blew it. And just like referees or teachers or parents, sometimes they’ll admit it and sometimes they won’t.

  • #104366

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    You’re right, Jay. The term “merit promotion” sounds redundant but it actually implies that there are other types of promotions that happen out there. The honest mistakes that hiring managers make in selection decisions are fewer than one would think. I’ve been in the business for over 30 years and during that time I’ve found only about 1% of those hired have been “honest” mistakes on the part of the hiring manager. Unfortunately, it’s easier for hiring officials to impose their own criteria for promoting and rewarding Fed employees than it is to follow the regulatory guidelines in place to help officials avoid even the appearance of favoritism or partiality. I also agree that candidates for promotion and awards should be more critical about their own performance (see Career Advice? Back to Basics!) but having done all that, it’s still far more likely that one will discover the “real” reasons had less to do with “merit” and more to do with “preference”, regardless of the recipient’s performance. It’s just one of those simple laws of motion that applies to human behavior … the path of least resistence is easier to follow than to exert the personal energy and effort needed to follow guidelines or to confront employees (whom one has befriended) when they don’t get recognized because their performance didn’t measure up to those who were promoted or given awards.

  • #104364

    Carol Davison
    Participant

    Common sense tells an organization to promote and reward its employees equitably, or they will leave. Because 80 people apply for each Federal job, the 79 people who don’t get selected complain about the selection process. We also need to realize that insiders have relationships and technical competencies that outsiders may not. Either way, merit promotion, performance management systems, etc are programs to objectivize a subjective process. As for personality, integrity, collaboration and resulted production are must haves. I move around a lot and acquired my positions from strangers because I was most qualified, but I’ve seen a lot of promotions based on relationships with the hiring manager. It is only logical to like people who are like you and want to work most closely with, and therefore promote them.

  • #104362

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    The field of social psychology has amassed a mountain of research indicating in very clear terms that human beings are not always the best judges of their own motives, and that people can be strongly (and demonstrably) motivated/influenced by factors they are largely unaware of.

    The concern this generates for those of us in the assessment/selection field, and merit-systems monitoring, is that hiring managers can talk a very good and sincere game about how they select/promote, and express the highest ideals about their approach to staffing, but still be influenced by factors that are anathema to merit without realizing it. It is a real and ongoing risk, of the sort we cannot ever afford to be complacent about, no matter how much you believe in the better nature of people (and I, for one, do).

    There is an emergng literature that also examines the impact of such “unconscious” factors in things like performance appraisals. Managers may think they are assessing performance alone, but may also be incorporating factors in their appraisal such as extra-role behaviors (OCBs), pleasantness, perceived loyalty or obligation, or physical attractiveness.

    Several years ago, I inserted a question into our manager survey on staffing, that asked managers whether they felt a sense of indebtedness or obligation to certain candidates (we were careful to say that we made no assumptions about them acting upon it….you get more confessions when absolution is given a priori). Over several years, and thousands of managers and competitions, we have consistently observed around 7-8% of managers telling us that they felt some degree (generally moderate) of personal pressure to lean in the direction of specific candidates. Admittedly, that may have been primarily managers who were simply attempting a reclassification of an employee to get them a much-deserved pay hike, and found themselves forced into running a competition for “transparency” purposes. But I also realize there are many circumstances in small district offices, where everybody knows who applied for the job, and the manager has to make a pick that is politically astute and lets everyone work together peaceably, come Monday morning. Indeed, when we were focus-group testing the survey, one manager in a regional office piped up that he was a bit skittish answering the question, but that it demonstrated to him that the folks back at HQ “get it”, and so validated the whole exercise for him.

    Again, that is not to heap scorn upon managers in particular. I’m sure the same sorts of unconscious influences play a role in many types of non-managerial, and non-hiring/candidate-related behavior. The concern is that hiring managers are simply not above being human beings and being susceptible to normal human influences on their judgment. You can’t fix that with legislation or policy, and you can’t fix it with mere training. You can certainly implement both of those, but you still have to stay on top of things, and can’t afford to be complacent. Human nature never takes a holiday.

  • #104360

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Case in point from a July 2010 article in GovExec…”Relatively low numbers of respondents (less than 40 percent in each case) agreed that promotions in their work unit are based on merit that steps are taken to deal with poor performers who are unable or unwilling to improve.

    Only 36 percent of respondents said they agreed that differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way in their work units. Almost half indicated that arbitrary actions, personal favoritism and coercion for partisan political purposes may be tolerated at their agency.”

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