By Barbara Haga, December 7, 2021

Picking up from last month’s column, we look at who’s responsible for setting the stage for feedback to take place and what a good narrative should include.

It’s common to find language in agency appraisal plans that sets out requirements for which official(s) are responsible for ensuring that feedback is provided to employees and that it is usable feedback.

Most agency plans assign responsibility for ensuring that the appraisal program operates as it should to the head of the component, installation, or operating division. The DoD Instruction on the Performance Management and Appraisal Program (DOD 1400.25, Volume 431) states on page 5 that DoD Component Heads (think Army, Navy, Air Force) are responsible for overseeing “the implementation, application, and evaluation of performance management programs within their respective Components.”

That’s an incredibly broad statement. However, included within it is ensuring that supervisors provide required feedback and that narratives actually contain documentation of accomplishments around the elements that are designated in the plan.  Usually, this responsibility would be delegated further down the line to subordinate levels of managers until we get to raters and reviewers. Here is the language regarding those officials from the HHS Performance Management Appraisal Program (430-1, Sections VIII and IX):

HHS – Rating Officials

  • Manage the full performance cycle from:
    • Clearly communicating expectations to holding employees accountable
    • Monitoring performance to providing regular feedback

HHS – Reviewing Officials

  • Implement performance management policies and practices within the appropriate span of control
  • Ensure that Rating Officials (ROs) carry out their performance management responsibilities within established deadlines and evaluate Rating Officials to ensure accountability for HHS’s PMAP

Here is where the rubber should hit the road. The requirement for the feedback sits squarely on the shoulders of the supervisor, but the enforcement comes from the reviewing level. Yet, I’ve heard countless stories of managers not carrying out these responsibilities without any consequence.

System Failures

Many years ago, I helped an agency rewrite all of their performance elements and standards. It was not a large agency. Also, they had a lot of employees who were attorneys who did the same work, so the task wasn’t as monumental as it might sound. (Don’t get excited, it wasn’t the MSPB). I led a group of employees and a supervisor and a union official who worked on the content of the elements and standards. That part worked great. What they told me about how ratings were done was shocking. I’ve seen a lot more since then and likely wouldn’t be as shocked now.

Here’s their story. I don’t know how many were in this situation, but it was common enough that all of the employees on the team said: “Oh, yeah. That’s how it’s done here.”

The managers of these attorneys, paralegals, and other support staff would not meet with them to discuss ratings. Ever. They would prepare the ratings and wait until the employees left for the day and put the ratings in the employees’ chairs with a note saying basically “sign this and give it back to me.”

I was going to do a briefing for the managers to introduce the new plans and get their feedback on them. I was also covering some basic provisions of the appraisal system in that briefing.  Some of the team members made a slide for me to include that had a red stop sign shape with the words, “Stop Drop and Sign” in white letters across it. They were asking me to tell their supervisors to stop leaving appraisals in empty chairs and not discussing them.

These supervisors were very high level, so the threat of rating them lower because of their failure to provide at least a minimum amount of feedback wasn’t a threat. Apparently, there was no requirement coming from above these supervisors to meet their responsibilities as set in the agency appraisal system.

Another System Failure

The same agency asked me to come back the next year. Their headquarters had told them they had too many Level 5 ratings and they needed to actually write a standard for Level 5. It was my brilliant idea that if I reviewed a sample of those Level 5s, maybe those managers would have done a good job of writing down what a 5 looked like and they would already have done a lot of the work for me.

So, I reviewed the sample. In some cases, they did a good job.  In others, I wanted to cry. After all the work of the team getting the standards done, the training I did on how they should be used, and what their own agency plan required, I found all sorts of problems.

The worst one was written to support a Level 5 on the element about their writing of appeal decisions. The element set measures about adequately researching issues, properly citing precedent cases, writing clearly, raising issues in advance if there was a legal issue that needed to go to their headquarters before the decision could be finalized, and so on. The appraisal for one of the GS-13s started off with a sentence about writing appeal decisions followed by this:

In addition to the outstanding work Mary does for the XXXXXX Branch, she has also volunteered and has done an excellent job in organizing a number of functions for the XXXXXX Division, including the end of year pizza party, after work socials, the end of year Holiday Party, and …

That rating had been approved by the reviewing level and an award paid, at least in some part, based on being the Division party planner. I helped write those elements and standards and I promise there was no event coordinator duties covered in those plans. It does cause one to wonder sometimes.

Next time, we talk about what documenting ratings should be about. [email protected]

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