MSPB September Newsletter Highlights Ways to Improve Performance Appraisals

In the Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) September Newsletter, Office of Policy and Evaluation Director James Read made note of the current shortfalls of the performance appraisal system and encourages agencies to make improvements. Director Read used the results of the 2016 Merit Principles Survey (MPS) as a guide for getting more out of annual reviews.

In the newsletter, Director Read explained that 63 percent of respondents felt that their appraisal was an accurate reflection of performance. Director Read notes that this “is not an overwhelming endorsement of the exercise.”

Furthermore, only 57 percent agreed that their annual performance review helped identify their strengths; 55 percent agreed that the standards used to appraise their performance are appropriate; 46 percent agreed it helped identify weaknesses; 44 percent agreed it made them feel more enthusiastic about their work; 39 percent felt that differences in work unit performance are recognized in a meaningful way; and 24 percent felt that the organization addresses poor performers effectively.

The MPS results also indicate that supervisors did not find the appraisals to be particularly helpful for managing development, promotions, retention, or dealing with poor performers.

Director Read also cited data indicating that nearly all federal employees are rated in the top two levels to indicate that the system may not be being utilized effectively.

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

First, Director Read suggested agencies focus more on communicating with employees and less on their actual grades. Director Read encouraged performance managers to acknowledge exceptional work in a timely manner and identify problems with performance early in order to try to correct it. Director Read noted that this communication should “happen continually throughout the year” and not “wait for 1-2 performance discussions.”

Next, Director Read suggested agencies choose the number of appraisal levels that works for their organization’s specific needs. He noted that a 2-level system, where employees are either successful or unsuccessful, may allow supervisors to focus on constructive discussions instead of how the performance translates into a summary or annual grade. Meanwhile, a three level system may allow employers to acknowledge the “superstars” within the organization.

Director Read explained this may require a “cultural shift” in some agencies, but defended data indicating that real time reviews are more effective for employee engagement.

Finally, Director Read acknowledged that annual performance appraisals are only one aspect of performance management and encourages agencies to use technology to make this system, and other performance management options, more accessible.

“[Technological solutions] go beyond just automating the paper-intensive appraisal process and provide tools to help define measurable performance standards, communicate work progress, share real-time feedback, identify problems early, provide ongoing coaching, and evaluate and recognize employees. Appraisals are just one aspect of performance management, but they tend to get more time, attention, and energy than more important pieces of the system, like setting goals, communication, and recognition. This is just something to ponder as we embark on this annual exercise.”

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