A recent article I wrote for FedSmith (So, Mr. Einstein, What Do You Plan to Come Up With Next Year?) looked at common "critical elements" (or "job objectives") that I believe are not ratable when applied to non-supervisory employees. It centered on the notion that areas like safety, EEO, and security represent rules – or areas where absolute compliance is expected. As such, any failure is likely to require a disciplinary action rather than a low rating, being perfect (obeying the rules as a matter of habit) is normal or "Fully Successful", and exceeding perfection (or "Outstanding") is unlikely.
At the conclusion of the article, I noted that supervisors have program responsibilities in these areas and, therefore, may be rated in any/all of these three categories. Risking the narcotic effect of continuing that article, I vowed to explain this apparent contradiction in a subsequent article. This is that article.
Why supervisors and managers are different
As I mentioned in the "Einstein" article, while the government’s discipline system focuses on rules and rule breakers, performance appraisal concerns achievement over time. This is equivalent to differences from our time in grade school. In breaking rules we faced the possibility of being sent to the principal’s office. What we were there to achieve was reflected in our report cards. For supervisors and managers, Safety, Security, and EEO might fall into both categories.
A supervisor may violate security rules. If she does, she has invited a disciplinary response – from a lecture (counseling) to removal, depending on many factors. The same supervisor, however, has program responsibilities to ensure secure work practices within her work group. She may or may not conduct security audits, give out reminders, conduct training, etc. Her performance in a critical element titled "Security Practices" is ratable, and the rating should depend on her efforts, expertise, leadership, and achievements.
While a blue-collar foreman may be held to specific standards of achievement in an element titled "Supports safety and promotes safe work practices", the focus of his subordinates should be confined to following safety rules and procedures. They needn’t concern themselves with conducting safety meetings or audits. The supervisor must. If either he or one of his crew violates a safety rule, discipline is the sensible outcome. If he fails to conduct safety checks or inspections, it may mean a lower performance rating at the end of the year.
Why EEO is different
Given the examples above, there are certain program areas for which there are both rules and regulations that demand compliance and an agenda for greater understanding, and improvement. When it comes to EEO, the picture has the added dimension of attitudes and beliefs.
Workplace safety and security have few social or political implications. Perceptions don’t seem to vary – from region to region, between Democrats and Republicans, nor among different races, genders, etc. People who advocate for enhanced safety practices at a naval shipyard or National Forest aren’t accused of "demanding special rights".
A history of window dressing
Before I write about evaluating critical elements focused on equal opportunity, some background is required. Federal agencies have spun a sad history of attempting to rate managerial commitment to civil rights. As FedSmith readers know, most agencies have required that all management officials be rated in some form of EEO critical element for decades. In my experience, this has been done more for reasons of appearance than actual evaluation.
Those who have mandated required EEO elements seem to have had no notions as to how it might be rated. Standards that refer to recruiting women and minorities have been applied to supervisors who had no authority to recruit or select. Other standards have pretended to evaluate on the basis of EEO complaints filed – a matter that is either uncontrollable or dealt with by discipline.
The two faces of EEO
Over many years, I have lived in many places – from the Deep South to the progressive Northwest. I have learned that EEO is complex and controversial. I’ve come to believe that my perception of a workplace may be quite different from that of a woman’s, someone from a different race, or someone who is gay. If I am their boss, such differences can be magnified.
If there is to be a meaningful EEO critical element for supervisors and managers it helps to acknowledge that the world of civil rights has two very distinct components in the Federal workplace. Most obvious, is the fact that discrimination and/or harassment based on race, color, age, gender, religion, or national origin are violations of laws, rules, and regulations. (Discrimination directed at sexual minorities is still in a confused state.) A joke that would elicit groans or offense at a party or ball game carries a potential for litigation if told at work. Moreover, the offender may be disciplined for doing so.
Beyond matters of compliance, EEO is also an area where achievements have been made over time… and more are ahead of us. Performance appraisal can help toward this end, but the focus must avoid compliance and center on continuing improvement. In my 33 years inside and out of the Federal government, I’ have found this focus to be lacking –among supervisors, managers, executives, EEO specialists and HR professionals. We get distracted by compliance issues and fail to set an agenda for improvement – at the levels where most managers work.
Shifting the focus
If the objective is to encourage greater commitment from more management officials, I suggest Feds turn their attention from past EEO compliance to an agenda for the future. When this happens, evaluation criteria begin to arise.
For example, those of us who read EEOC and court decisions concerning discrimination are continuously learning how the "rules" are being defined and applied. Most managers I encounter are unaware of this information. In an organization committed to equal opportunity, perhaps they should be. I believe specialists committed to EEO should disseminate such information. They can be more engaged with future changes and improvements than past sins.
Similarly, supervisors and managers should be brought to a level where they can articulate their commitment to civil rights to and among the people they manage. This may prove a challenge for some and an opportunity for others. That’s what appraisal’s all about. Among many civil servants, EEO isn’t very popular. This could be the result of upbringing, past experiences, peer pressure, burn-out, etc. It often takes courage and effort to stand up for what we believe is right and what the law requires.
A modest proposal
So how would supervisors and managers actually evaluated in an EEO element? Answering this question has as much to do with understanding appraisals as civil rights. Traditionally, "performance standards" have focused on measuring the past. This is done by using objective metrics or subjective "weasel words". [See: Making Pay for Performance Pay Off)
If the focus of evaluation were to shift toward improvement (achievement over time) standards might look different. Standards that help supervisors and managers better understand and commit to civil rights need to be clear and prescriptive. If the path to higher ratings (traditionally known as "Outstanding" and "Exceeds") were explicit rather than obscure, more might be accomplished. And lastly, "bean counting" is less likely to occur as we go up the chain of command; therefore, it would behoove us to measure success and/or failure without extensive metrics.
I’ve drafted an example that could, no doubt, stand improvement. Please look on it as just an illustration. (I worry readers will analyze and critique particular brushstrokes and, in doing so, fail to see the picture I’m trying to create.) Any of what’s written below would have to be run by specialists in civil rights as well as those who would be rated for comments and input. Readers may assume it would be changed (and hopefully improved) before ever implementing it. Here goes…
The subject of civil rights evokes passions – from frustration to bigotry to idealism. I’m hoping that in considering this example, readers will see possibilities for using performance evaluations in a different context. Rather than just "racking and stacking" employees, appraisals could influence them in positive ways.
While they won’t turn a sexist into a women’s rights advocate, they may help him become better informed. Admittedly, that’s not much, but in my experience no one has found a prescription for changing attitudes. Moreover, having been around to witness changes from civil rights to civil unions, I’ve come to believe that attitudes do change… incrementally. The only thing revolutionary about these performance standards may be their focus and format.
If you compare the example to standards agencies are currently using to evaluate performance in EEO, you’ll note a few differences:
- All rating levels are described in writing – including "Outstanding" or Level 5. There’s no need to extrapolate or guess what expectations might be.
- The criteria are focused more on achievement than compliance. They speak to what the supervisor could do, rather than what s/he shouldn’t.
- These are not full of subjective terms like "rarely", "frequently", etc. If a supervisor/manager aspires to a particular rating, the standards are designed to make it clear what needs to be done during the year to achieve it.
- While are more objective than many you may find in your own agency, they require little, if any, "bean counting" in order to ensure a fair rating is given.
- Perhaps most importantly, the example above is intended to illustrate a different way of developing performance standards (or indicators). The focus is on both measuring performance and improving it.
Readers may wish to post examples of standards currently being used to evaluate EEO by going to the discussion page for this article. Any examples and/or comments are welcome, so long as they’re not clearly offensive to others.
• Communicates his/her personal commitment to EEO policies in writing to all subordinates.
• Conducts monthly staff meetings that include reports and/or discussions of relevant EEO issues.
• Reviews the department’s EEO goals and determines if action within his/her scope of authority will be required. Reports findings to supervisor by the first progress review.
• Develops and works with a team to identify EEO barriers within the group.
• Documents ideas for ongoing improvements in EEO education and climate.
• Interviews subordinates to determine skills that are not currently used on the job. Develops a "skills inventory" and submits to supervisor.
• Interviews subordinates to determine what, if any, EEO emphasis/training they desire.
• Locates and uses a self-assessment regarding his/her attitudes and perceptions concerning EEO policies and practices. Results are discussed with supervisor.
• Reviews at least three Federal EEOC decisions (and/or related court decisions) and summarizes their potential impact.
• Orders and reads at least one reference book on the subject of EEO, discrimination, civil rights, or affirmative action. Provides a 1-2 page review to the Civil Rights Office at least two months before the end of the rating year.
• Reviews agency EEO/affirmative action policies and develops a short report for supervisor re: inconsistencies between policies and practices.
• After consultation with others, suggests at least two relevant items to supplement this list.
"Outstanding" (Level 5)
Performs as described in any 6 or more items shown above.
"Exceeds" (Level 4)
Performs as described in any 5 items shown above.
"Fully Successful" (Level 3)
Performs as described in any 3-4 items shown above.
"Marginal" (Level 2)
Performs as described in any 2 items shown above.
"Unacceptable" (Level 1)
Performs as described in fewer than 2 items shown above.