Performance ratings since the ice age

Monday - 3/19/2012, 2:00am EDT

Shortly after the end of the last ice age, a group of cave dwellers living in what is now the Northwest section of Washington, D.C., elected a leader. He was called the Imor Zotrk, which roughly translates to "Guy With The Biggest Stick."

They also formed a primitive (it was, after all, the ice age) government. It is believed that it initially included about 30 males, although after a few years it grew to about 4,200 people. Women — who were feared to be smarter than their male coworkers — were relegated to the typing pool where they chipped notes on stone tablets.

At one of the meetings of the new government, it was suggested that payments — in the form of salt and bison meat — be based upon performance. The idea was to reward hard-workers and increase productivity.

After the second year — because salt and meat were in short supply — it was decided that too many people were getting top awards. Managers (called Klongs) were told to ration top awards. Although the system quickly lost its original purpose, and fell victim to favoritism and political considerations, it has thrived even to this day.

Later on, the government engineer who certified the foundation of what later became known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa got a top performance rating. Turns out he was a bowling buddy of his big boss.

So, has the system been rigged all these years? Is that the way it operates in 2012?

In the past couple of weeks, we've had a series of columns on performance awards. They are mostly based on unverified first-hand accounts. Lots of them. Many people stepped up with comments, opinions and told us their experience. Scientific? Not at all. But interesting in the where-there's-smoke-there's-fire context.

The government still gives out performance awards but a lot of (most?) people think that in many (most) agencies they are a joke, at best. Here's what some people are saying:

  • "I'm a retired government scientist (as of 12/31/08). For years I heard bosses, as they gave typically perfunctory performance reviews, allude to limitations (on the highest ratings). At the time I just accepted it, assuming that those who got the highest ratings were, if not at least marginally better, then at least no worse than those who didn't. Looking back, and hearing other stories, I'm not at all sure that things were even that benign.

    "Above, I referred to performance reviews as 'typically perfunctory.' The 'textbook example' was the time my team leader called me into his office on the spur of the moment as I was passing by his open door and said, as I stood in front of his desk, that we had discussed my performance enough informally over the previous months, and would I sign here. Nothing strange about his ratings leading to this review, mostly the second highest rating with a smattering of highest ratings: good enough for the standard second highest rating (and, of course, no award).

    "As a scientist in private industry for 12 years at two different companies before I joined the government for 22 years, I found that in private industry, the performance review had discussions of what my weaknesses and strengths were. I occasionally actually learned something useful. In the government, performance reviews were just a waste of time, especially for management. This, plus the fact that in the FHWA, I was one of just a couple of chemists in an organization dominated by civil engineers, and, as such, a secnd class citizen, led me to never give performance reviews a second thought. I had work to do!

    "Thanks for letting me vent," Ernie Bastian

  • "I agree with the readers you cited in your articles. All the way back to 1972 when I started in federal service, there have been quotas on ratings. I think it was my third year my boss actually said 'There can only be so many outstandings so where do you want to get marked down to sat?.' Even in the failed attempt at NSPS there was an unofficial quota." Mark C.

  • "A couple of months before my scheduled 12/31/2008 retirement, I received a call from the executive who was head of our IRS business operating unit. He was working on the annual performance appraisals for his senior managers (i.e., GS-14 and GS-15 equivalents). He told me that he wanted to give me a rating of "Met Expectations" (i.e., the lowest of three satisfactory ratings, with "Exceeds Expectations" and "Outstanding" being higher). His reason was that the IRS allocated rating points didn't allow him to give out as many "Outstanding" ratings as he felt he needed to, in order to retain senior manager talent in the business unit. Our business unit was part of Agency Wide Shared Services, and unlike many managers in the taxing business units ours had talents that were actively sought by other agencies, particularly Homeland Security. The way the Performance Management System for Senior Managers (SM) works, is that each business unit is given 6 points per SM.