Creative Writing Season at the State Dept.
Last week I alluded to the fact that the annual employee evaluation review (EER) season is upon us- well, it is officially over (May 15th is the due date for the reports) but in reality will linger on for another week or so as last minute reports filter in. A number of commenters and e-mails asked for a more in depth description of the process, so here it is- all you ever wanted to know about EERs and probably a whole lot more!
EER season is a high stress time of year- the normal workload does not decrease, many folks are planning for their upcoming transfer season, and except for the entry-level staff everyone is busy trying to finish the reports for the people they supervise while making sure that their own report is finished on time as well. The reporting process is governed by the Foreign Affairs Manual, specifically 3 FAH-1 H-2800
and 3 FAM 2800
:3 FAM 2811.2 Objectives
The objectives of the personnel evaluation program are to enhance member efficiency and to provide a just and equitable basis for career tenure, promotions, within-class salary increases, performance pay, assignments, training, separations, and disciplinary action by:
(1) Providing for a periodic written evaluation of each member’s performance and potential;
(2) Assuring that each member participates in the formulation of and understands the work requirements, goals, and priorities established at the beginning of the rating period; and
(3) Establishing a constructive dialogue between supervisors and subordinates to continue throughout the rating period.
The process revolves around two forms, the DS-1829 (six pages) for all Foreign Service Officers and Specialists below the rank of FS-01 and the DS-5055 (five pages) for all Officers and Specialists holding a rank of FS-01 or higher (the Senior Foreign Service). I have so far been unable to find the forms on the Web to provide links- if anyone knows of any please let me know.
The report consists of: the rating statement- prepared (in theory) by the supervisor for employees at or below the rank of 02 and by the rated employee at 01 and above, the review statement- prepared by the next level of management, the dreaded “room for improvement” box and the rated employees final statement, affectionately known as the “suicide box.” Each report has to address issues such as leadership, management, communication skills, intellectual skills, job knowledge and of course EEO.
The process of writing the report is intended to be collaborative and transparent, with the rated employee, the rater (immediate supervisor) and the reviewer (usually next step up the chain of command) working together to produce a report that places the rated employee within the organization and measures his or her performance against the work requirements of the position.
In reality, for all but the most junior of officers and the total screw-ups, the employee writes at least the first draft of his or her own rating statement-it is a simple matter of time and wanting to have the best report possible. Combine this with the unwritten policy of “damn by faint praise” for the screw-ups and it becomes extremely difficult to tell who is actually a standout employee. It is only with slight exaggeration they I say some reports use phrases like “when Dick is not walking on water he is busy turning it into wine.” Smiley wrote a bout visits recently- when the Secretary of State visits your post everyone of any elevated rank ends up with credit for the success of the visit- whether the visit was indeed a success or not. Much like grade inflation in our colleges, relative worth of an employee’s contribution is inflated to help that person stand out among a group of peers who all have basically the same job.
Once the report is done it goes to a review panel, generally three officers or specialist who do not work in the employees section, for proofing. These panels are supposed to look for technical problems- i.e. a signature missing, a box left unchecked, and “inadmissible comments” of which there are many. For the most part these comments are the type of thing that would get the Department sued- “Miss Jones uses her perkiness to sway host country officials” or “Mr. Smith looks like a native of Upper Ickystan and so is able to bond with his interlocutors.” You get the idea. Of course since we all think we are the smartest people in the room, a lot of stylistic editing is done too- panels like to change words from “happy” to “glad” and “that” to “which.” Bear in mind that at least three people have already worked on this report- the employee, the rater and the reviewer, and now three more have seen it too. After review by the panel it goes back to the employee for corrections, then to panel again. If it is o.k. the panel chair signs the report and it goes to Washington.
A colleague has suggested that we do away with the review panels and make the report the work of the three people who have signed it. Let is be submitted to DC warts and all- and let those three be dinged for whatever might be wrong. I think this is a great idea- the panels simply tie up more resources. If three FSOs can’t get it right I don’t see how six make it any better.
The now glossed over report is sent to the Department to go into your personnel file. When an employee is eligible for promotion the file is sent to a board of examiners, who on average will spend eight minutes with each file. Bear in mind that each file will generally have at least three evaluations since the last promotion (most grades have a three year wait for promotion eligibility), and may have many more if you have languished in a grade for a few extra years. It is imperative, than, that each report give the impression of infallibility- you just better hope that your rater and or reviewer are good writers.
The process of evaluating employees is of course necessary. The present method, however, designed to protect the Department and to ensure that no one has their feelings hurt is unworkable. Poor performers are rarely identified as such, and criticism is so rare as to be non-existent. Managers are not asked to rank their employees for promotion, and staff are nor measured against their peers as well as their work requirements. The average person, asked to read ten EERs, would be very hard pressed to identify who was the star of the bunch- and oddly enough a member of the public sits on every promotion panel. Subordinate staff and local hires staff have no input into the rating of their supervisor (the Department is flirting with 360 degree review, but it does not seem likely to happen soon). Unfortunately the current EER process in firmly entrenched. As long as the PC police and the lawyers who fear blowback from calling a spade a spade control the process we will continue to have “screamers” in the upper ranks. Policy wonks who may be economic geniuses will continue to be placed in charge of our missions with disastrous effect on the staff. Potential leaders and excellent managers who labor under supervisors who write poorly, or are on the verge of retirement and just don’t care, will continue to suffer for it. The process needs a good hard look, the sooner the better.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to get to work on building a file for my next EER-we are almost out of wine around here.