It can be nice to have a boss that’s easily pleased. If we’re late; if we miss deadlines; if we don’t push ourselves to put forth our best work, we can still manage to get good ratings on our performance reviews.
But in reality, this type of practice can be detrimental for efficiency and productivity, especially in government positions with heavy responsibility and decision-making ability. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report on employee performance ratings in the Senior Executive Service (SES) entitled “OPM Needs To Do More To Ensure Meaningful Distinctions Are Made In SES Ratings And Performance Awards”. The report found that a surprisingly high number of SES employees have been receiving outstanding performance ratings.
Robert Goldenkoff, Director of Strategic Issues at GAO and one of the authors of the report, spoke with Christopher Dorobek, host of the podcast DorobekINSIDER, on the detailed findings of their assessment.
GAO looked in depth at performance ratings of employees in the SES in five government agencies: Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Justice, and Treasury. They were looking for commonalities, and ways to make performance ratings consistent across agencies.
“The idea was to have a more uniform system, something that would be transferrable across agencies. So, a five at one agency would mean the same thing at another agency,” explained Goldenkoff.
It’s an important area of research, according to Goldenkoff, because the SES are pivotal players in government decision making. Although there are only about 7,900 of them across government, they are the leaders, and the government depends on them for the quality of their performance. “The success or failure of an agency mission generally begins and ends with them,” Goldenkoff stated.
What they found was a little worrisome in terms of transparency and accountability. “What we found was that 85% of SESers were being rated in the top two performance categories – outstanding or exceeds fully successful,” said Goldenkoff. “Outstanding, the top rating, was supposed to be rare. Now we see it happening frequently.”
So, what happened? Are all government employees really that awesome? According to Goldenkoff, unfortunately that’s probably not the case. In fact, there are a lot of repercussions when an employee receives a low rating, which deters managers from giving those out.
“The common thing that I hear, but that no one wants to say publically, is that it’s just easier to give a four or a five - because if you don’t, it just ends up in a whole mess,” he said.
Additionally, there’s the financial factor. Since 2004, members of the SES have been under a pay-for-performance scheme, in which employees’ financial compensation is a reflection of their performance rating. Congress implemented pay-for-performance in order to create a stronger link between a senior executives’ demonstrated abilities and how their agency’s mission was benefitted from their performance.
What can and should be done? According to Goldenkoff, it’s crucial to substantiate an executive’s performance rating through a third party such as the Chief Human Capital Officer at Office of Personnel Management. “If agencies can justify why their most frequent ratings are at the outstanding level, OPM can allow it. OPM should just make it more transparent,” said Goldenkoff.
Of course, it’s nice to have a boss that will give you a rating of five and a nice, fat bonus. But, if you’re never challenged and you start to coast, you might never improve and help your organization succeed.