This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
This is the second of a series of posts on civil service reform. My last post outlined the merit system principles and why I believe they should serve as the foundation of any reform efforts. Merit System Principle #3 says in part “appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance” while #6 says “Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.”
It would be hard to find someone who does not think it is critical that civil servants should do their jobs well. Likewise, it would be hard to find anyone who does not believe the government should deal effectively with problem employees and poor performers. In fact, federal employees have themselves been complaining for years that agencies do not take steps to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve. They are the ones who have to carry the work that poor performers should be doing, and in the five most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys, only 28 percent or 29 percent agree that their agency is dealing with poor performers.
There has also been a lot of discussion in recent years about pay for performance, with proponents arguing it will incentivize good performance and punish poor performance. Opponents argue that pay for performance programs have a history of discriminatory outcomes and a tendency to reward people who are closest to the boss.
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Failure to deal with poor performers and complaints about pay-for-performance programs remind us all how much virtually everyone hates the performance evaluation process. That problem is not limited to the federal government. As I have written before, people hate performance appraisals because they are designed to tell employees something they do not believe. Most people believe they are above average, while the objective of most appraisal processes is to put most employees in the middle rating (usually called fully successful or something similar). So, HR designs processes to tell most people they are average, while those very same people believe they are above average. That leads to an adversarial approach to performance ratings that does not do much to drive performance. On top of that, the performance rating process costs a fortune. I estimate that the cost of doing appraisals as they are now done is around $1 billion annually.
As much as everyone hates the process, there is still a lot of support for having pay be driven, at least in part, by performance. The Merit System Principles mandate recognition of excellence. Dealing with poor performers also requires some measure of what constitutes good or bad performance. That means any attempt at civil service reform must address the problem of performance ratings.
I believe we can do that, make the process better, eliminate the adversarial aspects of it, and save money at the same time. Here are 6 things we should do to make the performance process work:
In some cases, we were able to help them improve significantly through training and development. In other cases, they were simply in the wrong jobs and we were able to place them in non-supervisory roles where they could be effective. None of that would have been possible without the knowledge we gained through MSF. One big lesson we took from implementing MSF was that proponents often encourage using MSF only as a developmental tool and not sharing the results with anyone other than the person being rated. We tried that at DLA and learned that it got in the way of trying to help the bottom 25 percent get better or get out of leadership roles.
These steps would make it much easier to run the appraisal process, by focusing on the most critical decision whether an employee should be retained or let go. The amount of time devoted to the process and the cost would be reduced. The stress for employees would mostly go away. In addition, bringing employees into the process for supervisor ratings would give workers a voice and senior managers a great source of information about what is really going on in their organizations.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.