The secret truth behind performance ratings?

Tuesday - 4/3/2012, 2:00am EDT

(Editor's note: This column was originally published March 15, 2012. Senior Correspondent Mike Causey is on vacation, so we're revisiting some of his recent columns)

Most of us have seen movies about a fight (as in boxing match) being fixed.

He's a tough kid. Up from the streets. But he's got a heart of gold. And he's honest. His girl loves him. His old mother is really sick and needs big bucks for an operation.

Then he gets a title shot. He could win. He should win. But evil forces (sometimes the mob, sometimes people who don't take plastic bags when they walk their dogs) intervene. They make him an offer he can't refuse. Take a dive or take a one-way ride.

Everybody knows the fix is in, except for the 27 million who view and bet on the fight and the state boxing commission.

Is this you?

Does this sound like your agency's performance rating system? Is the system fixed?

Getting a promotion, an in-grade or a performance award is about the only way the average federal worker can get a pay raise today. In addition to the feel-good feeling of a top rating, it can mean more money. And it looks good if you are going for a promotion or to another agency. But if the fix is in, what's the point?

A recent column on the subject prompted a lot of response from feds who say that for a variety of reasons, their agencies operate official-but-unofficial quota systems for a variety of reasons. Including to save money.

Are you shocked and appalled to hear such talk? Or have you seen it in action? Maybe been forced to take a dive? Here's what some of your coworkers have to say on the subject:

  • "Back when I was in DOD, before NSPS, the Performance Reviewing Official job was to ensure that all his subordinates were using the same criteria and standards.

    "I rated my employees fairly I thought. Then I discovered that in another organization, everyone got a top rating; even the ones who I wouldn't want working for me on a bet, and those who I would not have rated as high as my lowest-rated employee. I started giving top rating to all my employees, which by the 'standard' that was set by the Reviewing Official, they all very much deserved. Maybe the NSPS forced the Reviewing Officials to start doing their job.

    "And in spite of what appeared might be quotas to individuals, the NSPS system-wide ratings distribution was actually higher that what was expected by the developers of the system. (Or so it seemed to me based on the various articles covering it over the multiple years before and during its short existence) DCO

  • "Mike, last May 31, our rating period at one of our Department of Transportation modes ended. I had just I retired with over 30 years of service, military and civilian. My supervisor rated me as Achieved Excellence which is the highest rating (which was within line with all my ratings the 20 years I was there) and I thought made it mandatory for an award. But it was overruled by his boss because there wasn't enough money to go around. And they did not tell me for month; until the FY ended and I finally followed up on it. I've been stewing about it since.

    "I've returned as a part-time contractor ... I work out of the office, but I still go in every once in a while and I, fortunately, have not had to deal with that person. If I didn't need the part-time work (I have to wait on my Social security, TSP and reserve pension), I would have told her off. She can still get me fired :<( .

  • "There have been unofficial quotas for performance reviews in federal service for years (nothing new here). Fifteen years ago, I was a GS-14 and received a performance bonus of about $800 each year for 4 and 5 level performance. When I was promoted to GS-15, my bonus went to $7,000 and higher for the same level of performance. I was (privately) instructed to rate subordinates on a quota basis and no one was to get more than a $800 bonus.

    "This same quota rating is true today at my current agency. There is no official policy, it is just word-of-mouth." Suffering In Silence