Exceptionally Complicated Evaluations

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

In grade school, we called them "report cards." In college, they were "transcripts." Now they are "job evaluations" or "performance reviews." Some are more complicated than others. If you have escaped them, please send all of us the name of your workplace.

Ah, New Year's. A time of revelry, resolutions for self-renewal and . . . annual performance evaluations. It's a chance for supervisors to weigh the value of our work over the past 12 months, lavishing praise, proffering criticism -- constructive, as always -- and measuring room for improvement.

Some of us are measured more intensively than others. Consider the form that 8,400 Fairfax County workers contend with each year. It runs nine pages, with five ratings ("Unsatisfactory," "In Development," "Fully Proficient," "Superior" and "Exceptional") applied to as many as a dozen performance categories. It's all fed into a 500-point system to determine which of the 12 levels of annual salary increases (zero to 6 percent) is in order.

The form is part of the county's "pay for performance" program, devised several years ago to reward employees for the quality of their work, not merely for seniority.

But it has developed a few kinks that Fairfax officials are trying to straighten out. A recent study by Kennedy & Rand, a compensation and benefits consulting firm hired by the county, found the evaluation system "complex, time consuming and difficult to understand."

One problem is the disconnect between ratings and raises. It would appear, based on Kennedy & Rand's research, that the county workforce is one high-achieving bunch.

Nearly 98 percent of the employees evaluated last year received overall ratings of "Superior" or "Excellent," putting them in line for merit increases that averaged 4.3 percent. The handful deemed "Fully Proficient," meaning that they do their jobs with no problem, were given an average raise of 1.7 percent.

"The labels don't make a whole lot of sense," acknowledged County Executive Anthony H. Griffin.

Kennedy & Rand recommended that the county simplify the ratings scale by scrapping the intermediate labels of "In Development," "Fully Proficient" and "Superior" for clearer, more direct terminology.

County employees might be overpraised, but that doesn't mean they are overpaid. Consultants found that during the past six years, average salary increases for Fairfax employees have fallen squarely in the middle, compared with average raises for workers in seven other Washington area governments.

What's needed, said Penelope A. Gross, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors' personnel committee, is a little streamlining.

"We're just about where we want to be," Gross (D-Mason) said. "But some of these things need to be made simpler."

-- Bill Turque, staff writer

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