In most private sector businesses, employees and supervisors need not be concerned that the contents of their performance evaluations could be made public. Supervisors are free to speak openly about their employees' performance, issues, and career goals. However, for public employees the privacy of the written evaluation is not guaranteed.

Public records laws for documents created by a government agency oftentimes include written performance evaluations for police employees. Every state has a public records law that most likely is based on the federal Freedom of Information Act. Each state and each government organization interprets this differently and the interpretations may include public release of performance evaluations. While most people understand the need to have a transparent government, the arguments for public disclosure of employee reviews are not so clear-cut.

When a supervisor is faced with the prospect that his honest and forthright evaluation of an employee could be seen on the 5 o'clock news, the supervisor may choose to not be so detailed in his written assessment of an employee. This results in a less useful evaluation for both the employee and the organization.

On the other side of the argument is the simple fact that there is public interest in seeing certain people's personnel files, including performance evaluations. There are many different reasons why, but the most likely scenario is that an employee is involved in a high-profile incident where his or her work history is being questioned either by local media or an attorney who is hired to file a claim for some perceived transgression. This is where the arguments for public disclosure are the strongest.

When it comes to releasing an employee's performance evaluation to the public, the best-case scenario is that the legal entities making the decision about what documents will be released publicly perform a balancing test for each individual case. Every case is different, with different motivators for public interest. The public interest must be balanced with the employee's right to privacy.

Because of the potential for public disclosure of these documents, all supervisors should be very clear on what they are writing and whether their evaluations will pass "the headline test" of being seen in the media.


Best Practices: Performance Evaluations