Appraisals, Objectivity, and the Little Black Book

Controversy continue around pay-for-performance in government despite apprehensions by many employees and supervisors. Successful performance appraisals require a system that works well. The author has a “modest proposal” to help supervisors and managers be more objective in rating employees.

Pay for what?

Controversy continues swirling around pay-for-performance in government. A bill (introduced by a Democrat) in the House seeks to derail the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to expand such practices. Ironically, another bill in the Senate (introduced by a Republican) looks to expand merit-based pay.

Most of the internal chatter I hear in the field (from supervisors, managers, HR folks, and union officials) is negative. Folks already under such systems and those preparing for the inevitable question “pay banding” systems and the processes formulated to compensate folks based on their achievements. Most agree that DoD and DHS systems probably cost more to administer than they disburse as incentives.

I’m no expert on the compensation side of these equations. I understand concerns about blending bonuses with salary increases; reaching the upper limits of one’s pay band; implications regarding retirement incomes; the possibility of future funding shortfalls; and the complex processes designed to ensure fairness. These apprehensions appear to be neither irrational nor ephemeral.

My experience lies more on the appraisal side of these systems. Here one encounters worries that there will be favoritism, subjectivity, quotas on higher ratings, and questionable rating criteria. Among these concerns, I find the most important is the appraisal criteria itself – what most of us have come to know as “critical elements” and “performance standards”.

Objecting to objectivity

This is nothing new. While both DHS and DoD call for “objectivity” in evaluation measures, so does the law we in government have been operating under since 1979. The United States Code (Chapter 43) still reads: “…each performance appraisal system shall provide for establishing performance standards which will, to the maximum extent feasible, permit the accurate evaluation of job performance on the basis of objective criteria…”)

For most federal employees it never happened.

To begin, many of us have occupied (or currently occupy) positions that just don’t lend themselves to “metrics”. Moreover, in the early days of elements and standards, thousands of managers defined rating criteria in terms of percentages, error counts, allowable days, etc. – yet those of us in human resources (then known as “personnel”) quickly recognized that supervisors were not tracking results.

If you were rated on how many cases remain incomplete after 20 days or a 97% accuracy rate, and you knew your boss hasn’t been keeping count over the rating year, then your rating had to be subjective. This situation was all too real for thousands of federal workers – both working stiffs and managers. If it looks like baloney, smells like baloney and tastes like it too, then you begin to understand the basis of your rating.

As federal management became more embarrassed over this dilemma, the content of our performance standards quickly changed. Despite the legal requirement for objectivity, standards began incorporating “weasel words” instead of numbers. Expressions like “80%” became “most of the time” and “…with no more than 3 exceptions” became “with only rare exceptions”. Most of us laughed this off. It was just a different brand of baloney.

Back to the future

As far as I can tell, nothing’s changed. Whether the architects of DoD’s National Security Personnel System (NSPS) and DHS’s MaxHR are sincere or disingenuous isn’t the issue. History is now ready to repeat itself. The difference, however, is that your future salary is now dependent on that rating.

An example of a “performance objective” authored by DoD in its online class “NSPS 101” reads:

By September 30, between 20 and 25 budgets and associated reports will have been reviewed and analyzed for financial soundness and to ensure that they are within organizational budget requirements. Areas requiring attention and additional work will have been identified and addressed with the appropriate budget analysts. At least 80% of reviews will be completed within two weeks of receipt. This will support our organization’s goal of staying within fiscal guidelines for all projects.

How many FedSmith readers have a job that’s this predictable and measurable? I recall my embarrassment when I first realized that the “widgets” my teachers spoke of weren’t real things. No one makes widgets! Budgets vary greatly in terms of scope and importance.

Something else your high school teacher taught you

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying that this measure of success isn’t fair or useful. After all, our high school teachers told us that 65-69% was a “D”, 70-79% was a “C”, and 80-89% was a “B”. I actually think that was a reasonable appraisal system. The only difference between then and now is… they kept a grade book!

Imagine a high school teacher giving tests and papers but never grading them. At the end of the year, you’re kid gets a “C”. How did they come to that conclusion? Would an explanation like this be convincing? “I’ve been with these children all year and compared them. I assure you, your son’s a C.”

Now (when pay-for-performance enters the picture) add to that the possibility that this “C” will mean your child may get less or no scholarship money from the state college. Is a grievance in the offing? Principals (and “pay pool managers”) beware!

The sad fact is many government agencies went to “Pass/Fail” appraisal systems to avoid such embarrassment. Supervisors in government rate subjectively and disappointed/questioning employees lead them to inflate ratings to avoid conflicts. One of my clients in the 1990’s was rating 80% of its employees “Outstanding”! After all, if that same high school teacher evaluates your daughter’s performance as “A”, you may be less likely to care how they reached that conclusion.

Why not begin at the beginning?

My advice to DoD and DHS is to stress the importance of recordkeeping if they continue to insist on objective rating criteria. I can easily imagine a performance standard for a supervisor that reads, “Failure to maintain accurate records of employee performance outcomes throughout the year will result in an Unacceptable rating.” If it were enforced, pay-for-performance might actually work… but it won’t be.

Who among you thinks that Secretary Gates or Chertoff is evaluating his generals and Assistant Secretaries by metrics… and using such data to determine annual salary increases? If supervisors are to keep book on their employees, will their bosses rate them by objective criteria as well?

As I teach labor and employee relations seminars in the field, I find that many supervisors and managers aren’t sure whether they can keep a history (or “black book”) regarding their subordinate employees. You can. Nor have most been trained in keeping such a diary. Absent such notes, ratings will be rankly subjective.

The value of the black book

The supervisory diary need not be “black”. It should memorialize the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Federal courts refer to such notes as “memory jogger files”. Moreover, while I used to teach supervisors how they could keep such a history from inquiring employees, I have come to believe that making them available ensures better understandings surrounding the perpetual question, “How am I doing?”

I was mediating a few months ago regarding a terminated employee. During the course of negotiations, the employee (who was represented) alleged he had never been informed of a particular matter. Lo and behold, the supervisor said, “Let me check my diary notes on that.” The union rep visibly winced as she began perusing her black book. Sure enough, she had annotated her conversation with that employee months before. His acknowledgement soon followed.

After the parties had reached an agreement (which did not involve the employee’s return), I asked her how she maintained her diary. She told me that she takes 15 minutes at the end of each day to enter notes that might be of use in weeks/months to come. “It’s my memory.” she said. My guess is her evaluations come more from her objective memory and less from impressions, favoritism, etc.

A modest proposal

Such notes are essential. Most will be maintained electronically. Why federal supervisors aren’t specifically trained to maintain such a diary remains a mystery. From attorneys to dispatchers to auto mechanics, dozens of professions are expected to maintain ongoing documentation at work. Call it “CYA” (cover your assets) or just smart business, our notes are the essence of objectivity – and of proof, should we need it.

As DoD, DHS, and other federal agencies place ever-increasing influence on appraisals, they would do well to be reminded of something teachers have known from day one – keep a grade book. To teach complex structures for pay-banding, pay pool management, conversions to and from the GS system, etc. without beginning such basics is to ensure failure in the end.…and we in human resources whose mantra has been “Document, document, document” would better serve our managers by showing them how.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to