Sunday, February 24, 2008

Considering EERs

Considering I am in the middle of the EER process (because my boss has to finish them early because he has volunteered for Iraq), I really like some of the suggestions The Cookie Pusher has for the EER process. It's broken...let's fix it.

360 reviews for all!

...But, at least the EERs provide a clear picture of how good an officer is, and are submitted to clearly-understood criteria which a promotion panel reviews and promotes based on an unbiased judgment of merit, right?

OK, after you stop laughing, read on.

Our EERs are labor-intensive, and require the most work (in which the entire Department is convulsed in the March-April time-frame) from the highest-ranking officers. What’s worse, not one officer I’ve ever met, senior, junior, or mid-level (including several who have served multiple times on promotion panels) feels the systems offers any guarantee for promotion of people who really do a good job.

The doublespeak of EERs

As I leaf through a few of my old EERs, I’m forced to ask the question: why haven’t I been promoted to ambassador yet? Why haven’t I gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor? If you read the language as an uninitiated observer, I appear to have nearly-superhuman diplomatic qualities and am certainly the finest mid-level officer in the whole wide world.

And yet, I get promoted at about the same rate as everybody else. Eureka! The answer is: We’re all special, “which,” as Dash in Pixar’s The Incredibles rightly points out, “means that none of us are special.” We’ve engineered a regime of doublespeak and subtlety so refined that we ourselves don’t know when someone is being honest, when praise is praise, and what exactly criticism is.

No room for improvement

Every EER has the fabled “area for improvement,” in which an officer agrees with his or her boss on a criticism so faint and (ideally) irrelevant that it can’t possibly be construed as, in fact, a problem. I’m personally proudest of a year where my boss agreed to write that I needed to acquire a certain area of substantive knowledge for my next job. Allow me to emphasize that he didn’t suggest I needed it for my current assignment, but for the future – and I had time to do so before the next EER. Perfect.

U-Write EERs

Since we’ve established that EERs fall heavily on managers’ shoulders, how do they cope? Answer: typically, by having the employee write (or at minimum, provide a couple pages of outline for) their own evaluations. No wonder we all come across as heroes. We’re describing ourselves to the promotion boards most of the time.

Finding the criticism

Quite correctly, the Department understands that not everyone is as good as their EER makes them out to be, and since budgets are always a reality, only a certain number of officers get promoted in any given year. They force the promotion panels to divide officers into “promote now,” “low rank,” and a rank-ordered list of the rest. But what puts me higher up the ranking, with a better chance of getting above the cutoff number, and securing that promotion?

Who knows. But one thing is for sure: the typical panel reads quickly, since they all have day jobs, and if something jumps out at them in their cursory read, it makes a lot of difference. This can be positive, but since a bad officer rarely suffers a full-frontal assault by his boss in writing, the panels are often left to look for “damning with faint praise,” which means that any officer could potentially be misunderstood as under-performing because… get this… the boss didn’t praise you highly enough. So, your boss’ writing skills (or perhaps your own, if you are one of many who crafts much of your own EER) become the greatest influence on your promotion.

...Save our time. Save your money. Save our collective sanity. Move to universal 360 reviews now. Here’s how I’d recommend doing it:

All reviews would be numerical only. No prose.

Rating and reviewing roles (your boss, and your boss’ boss) remain relevant. Their participation remains mandatory, and their numbers count double.

Including rating and reviewing officers, you have to have 10 (just a number I’m offering) evaluations. If you have co-workers in the same section, they must review you (up to let’s say 3 people). If you have subordinates, they must review you (up to a certain number, let’s say 3, and the subordinate positions which have a review role are designated in your position description). Finally, you have 2 left which you can solicit at large from any State Department employee with whom you’ve worked or are working.

Highest and lowest reviews are thrown out (but not the rating or reviewing officers’), and a computer figures out who has enough points for promotion.

The only thing I’d add is that, as with the military, we should maintain “eligibility for promotion” criteria: time in class, completion of training, language requirements, hardship postings, and so forth. If you check all these boxes, and have the points, congratulations.

The Department of Agriculture, a much bigger bureaucracy than ours, has done it for years. Major corporations much bigger than State do it, too. Now, tell me why we shouldn’t move to 360.

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