Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.

Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.

Supervisors and officers tend to dislike dealing with performance evaluations (PEs) as much as they dislike internal affairs investigations and termination proceedings. Supervisors hate writing evaluations and officers hate reading them. But they persist anyway.

There are two schools of managerial thought with regard to PEs. The first believes they are a great management tool that helps agencies achieve their goals by improving and working with their employees. The second believes the opposite; they feel PEs hinder the agency instead. They view PEs as nothing more than a control measure, a tool out of touch with teamwork, and a vehicle that thwarts innovation.

I agree more with the latter school of thought, and so does a growing body of research. But since it doesn't seem that performance evaluations are going away anytime soon, I'll explore some common problems and suggest ways to make them more digestible.

Problems with Performance Evaluations

In "Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead," authors Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins make a very good case that PEs don’t accomplish their intended goals. The authors' chief contention is that PEs are controlling, boss-driven, and dependence-building devices that stifle motivation in employees.

This becomes evident when the authors point out that systems and processes (policies and procedures), and not individual skills or efforts, determine the bulk of performance results. Take for example a policy or procedure that, when followed to the letter, results in lower productivity in certain sections of an officer’s evaluation. How is that the officer’s fault?

Agencies cling to PEs as a form of documentation to help with disciplinary actions and legal challenges dealing with employee terminations. Unfortunately, evaluations tend to be inaccurate and inconsistent at best. I don’t see how something like that will help bolster an employer’s case.

Think about it: How often have you read an evaluation that was an accurate picture of 12 months' worth of work? How thoroughly was the scored bullet point section explained? Did the narrative section include other important details like completing schools or courses, receiving letters of appreciation, and outlining future goals? Or was it just a rehash of the bulleted section?

A common school of thought is that PEs need to be tied in to something to have meaning and value, for example pay increases. I always wonder about the sanity of things like that. You need a certain score on your PE to be eligible for a pay raise. And yet not everyone that hits the magic mark gets the money. It's a great tool for management as they get more work out of you; they get more bang for the buck. But all you get is banged. In reality, pay raises are a question of budget and not performance. Anything else is just a placebo for false hope.

Then there is the classic statement that reviews are supposed to be objective. If that were true then there wouldn't be such a difference between the supervisors who write them. Supervisor A gives you a 95. Supervisor B a year later gives you an 85. What's changed…you or the supervisor?

Accountability, measuring work product, and attitudes are subjective and not objective. Unfortunately, there are supervisors that evaluate individuals solely based on their numbers. If that’s the trend, then what ever happened to quality over quantity?

I have always had the opinion that if an officer is doing his or her job correctly the numbers will take care of themselves. What’s more important, that an officer makes 40 BS misdemeanor arrests in a month or that while on night shift the burglary rate drops because of his or her aggressive patrolling?[PAGEBREAK]If you answer that question honestly, you'll understand what kind of supervisor you are. Numbers tend to make politicians happy; making a difference by reducing crime trends makes citizens happy.

Writing Better Evaluations

If you are made to write evaluations then write a decent one. It's my opinion that an evaluation is more about the person writing it than the one receiving it.

Administrators look at the bottom line; they peek at the score and check to see if the officer is up to standard or not. Then they use that information to evaluate the supervisor: If the officer is not up to standard, what did you do about it? Why am I hearing about this now and not six months ago? Where is your documentation, including case numbers, dates, and times? Why isn’t it clearly stated in the evaluation?

It also works in the opposite way. When a supervisor writes such a good evaluation that it appears the officer walks on water, but there is no documentation to support it, administrators will immediately want answers. In other words, where’s the beef?

If it's a yearly PE, then why can't you come up with at least one detailed example for each listed competency rating? Things like "comes to work on time, looks professional in uniform, and knows her radio codes," are not examples of exceptional performance; they state minimum standards and point to a lazy supervisor if used to prove an exceptional rating. If you're the supervisor and you can't come up with examples to explain your position, the real question then becomes, what have you done for a year?

Documentation

You hear this all the time and yet we don't do much about it. Documentation is the key to a fair and valid PE. You have to document the good and the bad. No one incident (unless extreme) makes or breaks an evaluation. It's the patterns that are created by an officer's conduct and performance that do.

Documentation works for the officer as well. All officers should keep notes on themselves so they can compare what they feel they accomplished with what their supervisors write. I always ask my sergeants to send me a list of their accomplishments and major incidents before I write their evaluations. I am not embarrassed to tell you that I'm glad I do, because on occasion I have missed a few things and was able to incorporate them into the final product.

So how do you keep notes? There are many options, and you should choose one that works for you. I have an easy system I learned from one of my former lieutenants that works for me.

Take a daily planner/calendar and in the month page, right a brief description of the incident and time in the square for the date it happened. Then, go to the back of the planner where each day has its own set of blank lines. Once there, add the necessary details to help you remember later on. If you want more room, you can augment this approach by adding a running log on your computer. Write as much as you want and then edit later when you write the PE.

Those Hard-to-Write Bullet Points

It seems that a significant number of supervisors find writing the necessary bullet points for the listed evaluation competencies a difficult task. Books like "Effective Phrases for Performance Appraisals" by James E. Neal Jr. are very helpful when writing performance bullets. The author lists bullets in just about every category possible that you can use verbatim or modify to suit your individual needs.

There are many Internet sources that you can use as well. Typing in "employee evaluation phrases" in any search engine will help find you what you need.

For example, at www.uthscsa.edu/hr/pdfs2/phrases.pdf, you'll find a very useful four-page reference. But eventually you won’t need to refer back to these types of cheat sheets, as you will get in your own groove and be able to spit them out at will. One of my sergeants currently keeps his best written evaluation and uses it as a template for others.

Final Words

The biggest reason I dislike performance evaluations is that they are not a substitute for leadership. If a supervisor is doing his or her job consistently, then an evaluation becomes superfluous. Leadership is performed day to day, not once a year.

If you have to work with performance evaluations, then do it right by documenting all year round. Write performance bullets that include detailed examples. If your agency's evaluation form includes a narrative section, don't just cut and paste text from the bullets you've already written; write something else. A 12-month period should give you mountains of material to work from.

Don't write a bad evaluation because you're lazy. And don't accept a bad evaluation if you have the documentation to prove otherwise. Evaluations have a nasty way of working themselves into your life when it's convenient for someone else. Don't make it so convenient. 

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

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