Officer evaluations

Published: Monday, September 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 31, 2003 at 11:19 p.m.

As a professional working in the field of employee performance appraisal, I was struck by your article (August 22) about the "exemplary" ratings given to both of the detention officers fired in the wake of the allegations of their culpable negligence in the county jail inmate rape debacle.

I was reminded of several similar stories, notably the bogus reporting scandal that recently engulfed The Sun's parent company. Jayson Blair, the reporter at the center of the controversy, also received favorable performance reviews, even as he seriously undermined The New York Times' journalistic reputation.

The fact that such glowing ratings are seemingly at odds (putting it mildly) with actual job performance underscores just how sadly inaccurate performance appraisals often are. Regrettably, such poor design and poor execution stem from the lingering conception of the employee review process as a low-value, high-paperwork exercise that rubber-stamps everyone's performance (no matter how bad or good) as "acceptable" (or even "exemplary").

With a nod to NPR personality Garrison Keillor, this statistical impossibility of everyone scoring above average is called the "Lake Wobegon effect."

Bad performance appraisal is one problem; misunderstanding of the process is another. Sheriff's Office spokesman Keith Faulk's comments ("If there was a problem . . . not brought to a supervisor's attention, of course it's not going to show up on an evaluation.") indicate that jail management does not even recognize one of the main purposes of performance appraisal: to provide a formalized process to proactively identify problems, preferably using a channel that is not reliant on access to, or under the exclusive control of, supervisors.

For example, incorporating performance feedback from peers and subordinates into the evaluation process is a proven way to uncover and remedy the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that clearly contributed to the jail's troubles, and that busy supervisors can easily miss. The costs of implementing a better evaluation system are negligible compared to the costs of defense, investigation and legal settlement that loom on the county's horizon.

When done well, and integrated with follow-up training and development, performance appraisal has a significant positive impact on both individual and organizational performance. Recognizing that potential and acting accordingly will require a new mindset about the methodology of employee performance management at the top level of the Sheriff's Office. That's an essential step towards preventing a recurrence of this deplorable situation.

Robert McPeek is director of research for MindSolve Technologies, a Gainesville-based performance management company.

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