Jonathan Walters is the Executive Editor of GOVERNING. He has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.E-mail: Jowaz22@gmail.com
Mike Nugent points to his first job evaluation as a lesson in how silly the whole exercise can be. It was his first year as a code enforcement officer for Old Orchard Beach, Maine. "We had a fairly flamboyant town manager who did my evaluation," he says. "Overall it was pretty good, but he put something in there that was less than flattering, and I asked him about it and he told me not to worry, that he really didn't mean it but that he had to put something negative in, otherwise the town council would think he wasn't doing his job." Thirteen years later, Nugent finds himself in the management ranks as the head of code enforcement for Portland, Maine. But he still recalls that story with amusement.
When it comes to employee evaluations, everybody seems to have a story. "My favorite was the one where I got an e-mail from my boss saying that he'd completed my evaluation, that it was in my desk drawer and that I should sign it and put it back in his desk drawer," laughs Nancy Bartlett, who at the time was working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Even though it was a generally positive evaluation, she recalls feeling that "it was a little impersonal." Bartlett, who now does internal management training for the city of Irving, Texas, says that even good employees can get frustrated when their whole year is summed up in a form, with no opportunity to talk to the boss.
Regardless of how Mike Nugent or Nancy Bartlett may have felt about their old-style evaluations, some would argue that they were actually lucky: At least they had managers who did evaluations. In many places, it's not unusual for employees to go years without any meaningful interaction with the boss over job performance at all, and for a pretty simple reason: Employee reviews have devolved into an odious ritual that employees and managers alike would just as soon avoid.
For employees, it's an artificial attempt to cram a year's worth of work into a one-page, or a three-page, or a six-page form that ends up declaring that an employee "exceeds," "meets" or "doesn't meet" those all-important "expectations." For managers, the process is all too often viewed as a time-consuming hassle fraught with the potential for conflict, hard feelings and on-the-job recriminations.
And so the almost universal response to the evaluation dilemma has been either to duck it entirely or make the review process so meaningless as to present no trouble or offense to anybody. In Seattle, for example, managers are supposed to hand in employee evaluations every year. But that's as far as the city's administrative directive goes--it says nothing about what ought to be included in that evaluation. "And so every year people are signing and sending in blank evaluations," says Bonnie Snedeker, director of the city's internal management consulting arm, the City Performance Resource Group.
As a result, Snedeker has found herself on a joint labor-management task force that's in the process of overhauling the city's employee- review process. What Snedeker hopes to develop is a system that will lead to genuine dialogue between rank-and-file employees and their managers, and by extension, to a better work environment and improved organizational performance.
A handful of other jurisdictions are also taking a more serious and sophisticated look at how to use employee evaluations to improve everyone's working life. But wading into the job-review quagmire can be a hard lesson in organizational reality. That's because when it comes to employee evaluations, labor and management seem to pretty much agree on two things: that the system they've got stinks, and that a different one might be even worse.
Clearly, the first hurdle for any government interested in overhauling its system--or creating one in the first place--is how to get everyone on board.
A frequent mistake that management makes is failing to get the rank and file involved right away. Management's commitment to working with labor was critical to the creation of a completely new system in Washington State, notes Julia Graham, special assistant to the director in the state personnel office. Both sides put in long, hard-- and sometimes testy--days in coming up with what is being widely hailed as a vastly improved employee-evaluation process.
One of the most divisive issues was management's initial insistence on a "peer review element" in the new system--that is, the review process would include co-workers' comments about one another. Labor hated the idea and talks stalled. Then Graham says she had one of those epiphanies that was in keeping with the whole spirit of a more flexible, user-friendly evaluation system: Make it optional. And the process rolled on.
While labor and management have a history of working together on issues in Washington, even in states where they've been battling for years, improving employee evaluations has proved to be a uniter--at least eventually. For example, the Kentucky personnel department introduced legislation in 1998 aimed at overhauling its antiquated employee evaluations, a system that is actually written into state statute.
Although the Kentucky American Federation of Teachers, which represents 3,000 white-collar state workers, agreed that the old system was "terrible," says executive director Charles B. Wells, it didn't think the new proposal was an improvement. The Kentucky AFT wanted a system that locked managers into a consistent approach, one that reduced the chances that supervisors would stray from the path of objectivity. When management refused to include labor's requested changes to the bill, Wells says his union had enough clout to kill it.
To management's credit, the message got through. And when the state personnel office went back to the drawing board, it brought labor into the room. A modified version of the 1998 plan passed easily in the 2000 legislative session. "We argued and we fought and we walked away once," says Wells. "But in the end, we came back and worked out something that was far better than the 1998 plan."
Under the new system, the state's 14-year-old, two-page form--which quickly boiled an employee's performance down to "exceeds," "meets," "fails to meet" expectations--was replaced with an expanded system that requires a meeting at the beginning of the year where employees and managers take a comprehensive look at those "expectations." The new system also calls for two interim meetings each year, to gauge employee progress. Then comes the annual review, at which time employees are assigned points in four areas: how they performed basic job tasks; their ability to cooperate and communicate on the job; the extent to which they exhibited adaptability and initiative on the job; and "self-management," which includes punctuality and dependability, as well as the extent to which an employee pursued career-development opportunities.
With point totals in hand, employees then receive an overall rating with regard to those ubiquitous expectations: "greatly exceeds," "exceeds," "adequately meets," "barely meets" and "fails to meet." Top performers get a day or two of annual leave added to their basic allotment. Those rated "barely meets" have to work with their supervisor on a "self-improvement" plan. Employees rated "fails to meet" must be terminated or transferred to a job more suited to their skills and abilities. Evaluations are appealable one level up in the chain of command, or all the way to the state personnel board in the case of the two lowest ratings.
There are some, though, who would argue that Kentucky's new system is still behind the times when it comes to current evaluation philosophy. That's because as objective and job- and skills-focused as it might be, it still builds to a final overall rating and is the basis for specific rewards or punishments.
To those who consider themselves in the employee-evaluation vanguard, the goal of an evaluation isn't to satisfy some grade-school imperative that everyone is an A, C or F in this world, and ought to be rewarded--or punished--accordingly. Rather, the purpose of the exercise is to improve organizational performance. And the best way to do that is to develop some mechanism aimed at encouraging enhanced communication between employees and managers that focuses on how their work and their working relationship impacts the organization.
That's why in Portland, Maine, Washington State and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, employees are rated in a host of categories that serve to stimulate and focus discussion about goals and performance, both personal and organizational. The question of whether an employee is ultimately good or bad or is going to get a 3 percent or 5 percent raise next year doesn't come up.
In some places, in fact, the evaluation process has changed so dramatically it's probably not even accurate to refer to "employee evaluations." Washington State, for example, has created what are called "employee development and performance plans," "EDPPs" for short.
Washington now has a system that consists of a four-part form aimed at getting managers and employees on the same page when it comes to improving personal and organizational performance. All except Part Four are worked on jointly by employees and managers. Part One of the form is an assessment of the employee's contribution to overall organizational goals, as well as a nitty-gritty look at an employee's basic job performance; there are no rating boxes and what constitutes "performance" is described in a narrative. Part Two is an inventory of expectations, job duties, special assignments and so forth on which the employee ought to focus in order to be considered a contributor. Part Three allows both the employee and manager to focus on training and professional development opportunities that might help an employee become an even greater contributor--and perhaps advance personally and within the organization. Part Four offers employees the chance to make suggestions to the boss on what he or she could do to support that employee, both in daily work and when it comes to long-range career goals.
Other advanced employee-evaluation systems might be somewhat more (or less) elaborate or have different buzz phrases. But virtually all of the new-and-improved versions tend to shift the focus away from any sort of ultimate rating and onto how employees and managers can work better together to get the job done. Minnesota DOT's evaluation leaves room for looking at everything from leadership skills to maintaining a sense of humor on the job.
But even the new generation of evaluations can present problems. Most require some inventory of what employees do, and how what they do links to larger organizational goals. Coming up with such lists and links can be hard to do because, on the one hand, organizational goals might be lofty and general; while on the other, a list of employee tasks can be quite specific. Portland, Maine's, old employee- evaluation form, for example, asked for lists of job duties that could descend to comical levels, says Kevin Carroll, a code inspector for the city, and president of his AFSCME local. "Our previous evaluation form was six or seven pages long and had all these little subsections about job duties, almost to the point where it seemed to be asking, `Does the employee tie his shoelaces properly?'"
Robert "Woody" Woodruff, who supervises road maintenance crews for Minnesota's DOT, understands that attempts to enumerate an employee's duties as they relate to the bigger picture can devolve into an exercise in shoelace-tying silliness. So he simply lists among his crew's tasks and duties such things as that they work safely, understand proper traffic control, know how to use the equipment they're working with and follow both OSHA and MinnDOT policies as they do their jobs. When it comes to the larger goals of the organization, Woodruff asks that his crew maintain the equipment properly, report any accidents as quickly as possible and maintain the roads in summer and winter according to MinnDOT policies and public safety.
Woodruff has found that a new approach to employee evaluations can definitely foster a better attitude about work. For example, when he told his mechanics he was going to discuss their leadership skills, he says they laughed. "They said, `Hey, I'm only a wrencher, I don't exhibit leadership skills.' And I said, `No, not until we wreck a truck out on the road and you come out and tell us exactly what needs to be done to get it back to the shop and what needs to be done to get it back on the road. Then you do exert a leadership role.'" The result of such a conversation, Woodruff notes, can be pretty positive. "That's when they say, `Hey, maybe I do take a leadership role,' and I see their attitude about their job change a little; they take a little more pride."
Clearly, a new style of employee evaluation has allowed Woodruff to achieve such breakthrough moments with his employees. But the pride in his voice as he talks about his "guys" is a reminder that there's a huge human element involved in all this, too, and that the best form in the world isn't going to instantly create good employee-manager relations or improve organizational performance.
Still, many believe new-style evaluations have the potential to make the process much more positive. "Ultimately, it all really boils down to the relationship of the employee and their supervisor," says Nancy Bartlett, in Irving, Texas, which recently revamped its employee evaluation system. "Here, some employees and supervisors are doing great; some still hate it. But I view it as an opportunity to tell my supervisor that I'm going to do more for this organization than just show up between 8 and 5 and breathe."
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