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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Who Needs Performance Reviews?

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In today’s Washington Post, Steve Barr highlights a new commentary by Bob Behn, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In Behn’s article, which appears in his monthly newsletter on management, he argues, provocatively, for the abolition of annual performance reviews in government, saying they’re a waste of time and have pernicious side effects.

Behn presents the case of “Robert,” a “really obnoxious goof-off” who “doesn’t do any work.” In dealing with such an employee, a government manager has only two choices, he says: Launch an all-out attack, using all of the resources of the personnel system to try to remove him, or shrug off his poor performance and give him satisfactory performance ratings. Behn forgives managers for taking the latter course with Robert, even if they do so for many years running. He says it would be better if there were no annual reviews, so that there wouldn’t be any performance paper trail confronting a manager who came into an office, took one look at Robert, and wanted to get rid of him.

I have two problems with this argument: First, Behn’s case hinges on the notion that there simply aren’t enough hours in the week for managers to do everything they need to do, so they must concentrate on a few “really important and winnable problems.” But if taking on an employee who is not just mediocre, but both obnoxious and a complete slacker, isn’t an important problem, what is? Sure, such cases are never easily winnable in the federal context, but even if a manager can’t take on every employee whose performance isn’t great, he or she must take on the really bad apples.

Second, any system that dramatically reduces the amount of regular, standardized feedback employees receive will be more, not less, open to endless challenges from employees on the grounds of fairness. Behn says that in the absence of performance reviews, managers could put any kind of written material (good and bad, but he concedes that most of it would be good) in employees’ personnel files. Doing that well would be at least as much work as conducting annual performance reviews, wouldn’t it? Behn partly counters that argument by saying that a manager could simply put nothing in a poor performer’s record, and that an “empty file would itself be damning evidence of incompetence.” But the mere absence of commendations in an employee’s file would hardly stand up as grounds for dismissal or discipline, unless an agency is willing to open up every other employee’s file to show how they compare--which seems an unlikely, if not illegal, prospect.

I have great sympathy for managers who have to deal with poor performers, especially in the federal context, where climbing the paperwork mountain can be a truly excruciating exercise. But Behn’s system would provide managers with even greater incentives to do nothing about poor performers. And one of the worst things that can happen to a leader is losing the trust of his or her top performers by failing to do anything about one of their colleagues who clearly isn’t meeting minimal performance standards.

 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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