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MSPB: There’s a Better Way to do Performance Reviews

Few have faith in a system where 99% of employees are deemed “fully successful” or better.

For most federal employees, it’s an event everyone loves to hate: the annual performance appraisal. As agencies gear up for this year’s reviews over the coming weeks, the Merit Systems Protection Board has some advice: spend more time discussing performance and less time haggling over the actual grades. 

In the quasi-judicial board’s September newsletter, MSPB Director of Policy and Evaluation James Read noted the deep frustration with the review process felt by managers and workers alike. A 2016 Merit Principles Survey found that “supervisors do not find the appraisal to be particularly helpful in managing development, promotions, retention, or dealing with poor performers.” Of the approximately 120,000 federal employees and managers surveyed, just 63% believed their appraisals were accurate and only 24% said their organization addressed poor performers effectively. There’s plenty of reason to doubt the credibility of the performance rating system: 2017 workforce data show that nearly all workers—more than 99%—are rated “fully successful” or higher, a statistical improbability.

“Considering the time, resources, and effort that go into the current performance appraisal process, we need to ask if there is a better way,” Read wrote. “I believe there is.”

He stressed the need for communication and feedback throughout the year and to “identify problem performance early and try to correct it.”

The MPS survey showed that employees at different levels of an organization often have different work priorities. While non-supervisor employees tended to prioritize meeting a specific standard, senior executives were more concerned with organizational expectations and workplace fairness. “Recognizing and resolving such differences in expectations should be a skill employees in every role strive to develop,” Read wrote. 

Agencies also need to reconsider the number of appraisal levels they use in employee reviews. A simplified 2-level or 3-level rating system is optimal for many agencies, Read said. With a two-level system, where employees are rated as either successful or unsuccessful, “employees and supervisors can focus on constructive discussions about performance,” while a three-level system “gives employers the opportunity to acknowledge the superstars in the organization.”

It’s important that managers and supervisors offer feedback on performance in real time throughout the year. He cited how the Office of Personnel Management has urged agencies to use “special act awards” as a way of offering positive acknowledgement in real time. 

Technology can also help supervisors administer better performance reviews. Beyond “automating the paper-intensive appraisal process,” online programs can help set standards for work progress, bolster communication, share feed-back in real time, provide coaching and help evaluate and acknowledge employees, Read said.