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How Public Employers Are Reevaluating the Employee Review

Local governments are changing the frequency of performance evaluations, who receives them and what they're assessing.

concept of performance review
There's not a lot that people like less than getting criticized. For many, it's the least favorite part of their job.  

In National Research Center surveys, local government employees pan the way their employers deal with employee performance. Only roughly a third think they do a good job of handling low-performing and high-performing workers. And although 72 percent believe supervisors treat employees with respect, only 55 percent approve of the way their employers evaluate performance.

"The ratings have been low since I started doing this 10 years ago," says Michelle Kobayashi, the National Research Center's vice president. "Local governments are not getting better at evaluating performance."

But they're trying to. There's no silver bullet, though ample experimentation in the public sector provides hope for better ways of giving feedback to workers.

One of the biggest problems with employee evaluations, says Scott Lazenby, who has spent four decades managing cities, is that they tend to take place only once a year. This leaves the potential that a staffer contentedly goes to work every day, only to find at the end of 12 months that his efforts have been systematically unsatisfactory. Equally problematic is the deferred validation for a superior worker.

"What a silly idea it is to store feedback up for one big review at the end of the year," says Lazenby, currently the city manager for Lake Oswego, Ore.

That's slowly changing.

Last year, Charlottesville, Va., started emphasizing ongoing communication between supervisors and employees about performance, and formal reviews are now done at least twice a year.  

"Employees should expect no surprises in a performance review," says Galloway Beck, the city's human resources director. "If someone has been performing in a less than satisfactory way, they should already know that."

In San Mateo County, Calif., a performance evaluation experiment is now in its third year, currently involving 600 of the county’s 5,000 employees. The new process abolishes formal annual reviews, doesn't include a rating component and encourages constant communication between supervisors and employees, including meetings every other week.

The infrequency of performance reviews isn't their only problem. They're also often inconsistent. That's something Minneapolis is addressing.

In the past, "some did performance reviews and some didn’t," says Patience Ferguson, the city's chief human resources officer.

Now, no Minneapolis staffers are exempt from an evaluation -- not even department heads.

While the city still does annual evaluations, it's updated what workers are being assessed on. It aligned reviews with the strategic goals of its 22 departments, helping individuals see how they're contributing. The city also created a new category called "cultural agility." This considers whether an employee is aware of cultural differences and is open to people with different backgrounds.  

Whatever reforms are made, it will likely take time to find ones that stick. In Memphis, managers have been regularly readjusting a new evaluation system for the past three years. 

The city created a five-point rating scale and tied it to end-of-the-year bonuses. Employees liked the bonuses, but complaints flowed in about the rating system.

Many didn't like that a "3" meant "meets expectations." That sounded "too average," says Eric Sabatini, senior manager of HR analytics and performance for Memphis. The city changed the definitions in 2018 -- so that a 3 is now considered "strong performance," a 4 is "exceptional performance" and a 5 is "superior performance" -- but managers had a tough time distinguishing between them. Who wouldn't?   

Memphis has gone back to the drawing board. It's now considering removing numerical ratings altogether. 

"We haven’t figured this out yet," says Sabatini. "We’re looking at options."

This article has been updated to correct the fact that Lake Oswego is in Oregon, not California.

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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