Bosses who give subordinates job ratings that could deny them raises or promotions or result in pink slips can be ordered by an arbitrator to review and upgrade performance appraisals, according to a new decision by the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

The decision, which the government may challenge in court, says that performance appraisals deemed unfair or illegal by arbitrators can be sent back to agencies with instructions to change them.

Every year each of the government's million-plus white-collar workers is supposed to get a performance rating. Some bosses spend considerable time on the procedure. Others consider it to be such a hassle that they leave the job to subordinates or give everybody the same satisfactory rating.

While the procedure varies by agency, appraisals generally are based in part on guidelines established for particular job and grade levels, and also on how well the boss thinks employees have met mutually agreed goals for the year.

Typically, performance appraisal systems have six levels: "Outstanding, exceeds fully successful, fully successful, minimally successful, unacceptable" or a "not rated," or similar terms.

Workers who get any of the top three ratings qualify for within grade (seniority) pay raises and promotions and get job retention points that agencies consider when undergoing layoffs. The vast majority of all federal workers are rated "fully successful" or better.

Many workers contend that the rating system makes it easy for bosses to play favorites or unfairly punish employees whose work is good but who may have personality clashes with their superior. Many bosses say that the complexity of the procedures and the backlash when they rate a problem worker poorly make it conducive to giving everyone the same rating.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority's decision came in a job rating challenge brought by the American Federation of Government Employees union against a Social Security Administration supervisor in Baltimore. SSA had no comment on the overall effect of the ruling, or whether it would comply with the arbitrator's order to review and upgrade the performance rating.

Federal Pensions and Taxes

At 1 p.m. tomorrow on WNTR radio (1050 AM), Washington lawyer Thomas O'Rourke will talk about a lawsuit filed by some recently retired federal workers. They are challenging the taxability of lump-sum pension payments. The retirees contend that the lump sum payments represent their previously taxed contributions to the retirement fund. If the retirees win their case it could mean major refunds for many recent retirees, and tax-free lump-sum payments to workers who retire in the future.

Scholarships and Loans

The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund plans to open branch offices in 10 major cities to handle contributions -- and dispense funds -- for scholarships and loans to federal workers and their family members. The fund, now part of the Combined Federal Campaign, raises money to help civil servants in need. The fund's local office number is 543-8665.