A Review of Performance Reviews

13 Jan 2002
January 13, 2002

horoscopeIt’s January in Washington, DC. Nestled snuggly between The Holiday Season and The Tax Season in this town is The Performance Review Season! This is the period when all good federal government supervisors are “tasked” with evaluating the performance of their staff. Deadlines loom and are taken very seriously, so it’s important not to procrastinate.

Before I was hired, in my interview with our Administration people, I was asked what I would do if I had to fire someone. Since this was my first 9-5 job ever, and the only people I had previously supervised were my students, I only had my common sense to draw upon. “I’d make sure I hired good people in the first place!” I responded guilelessly. And that has been my policy (and good luck) from Day 1. I work with a wonderful group of people who do their jobs well and make mine a pleasure.

Talk of review deadlines starts just before Christmas. Of course, no one really begins until New Year’s passed. Last week I began working, not just on my staff’s reviews, but on listing my own achievements for my own review. It was hard to piece together everything I did last year (may I recommend monthly reports, if only to remind you in December of what wondrous things you did in January?). But, once I got it all down, it was very gratifying to see what I actually did. I left work last Monday with a warm sense of accomplishment.

This week I wanted to assemble each worker’s review, their 2002 Performance Plan (with duty changes updated), and the official cover sheet to get them to my boss before the deadline (think 1040 (long), Schedules C and D, and Estimated Tax multiplied by the number of people you are responsible for). Since paperwork is not my forté, I like to dispense with it as soon as I can (not that I don’t take great care in writing these things).

Here’s how it works: each January I write a Performance Plan for the upcoming year for each employee using a template supplied by my higherups. My job is to list basic job assignments in the first column and more detailed duties in the second. Critical (i.e. important and heavily weighted) categories are noted with an asterisk. The third column, Actual Performance, is left blank and is filled out at the end of the year. The last three columns allow you to check whether they Exceeded, Met, or Not Met these criteria at year’s end.

From a design point of view, I’ve never been one for filling in prefab forms. I always feel an incredible sense of pressure to weigh my words to fit the space I’ve been allotted without touching the bounding lines (proper forms always make you put things in boxes). Of course, what I usually write is initially greater than the space I’ve been given. I hate going over those lines! It makes me, um, uncomfortable (whatever the reason for filling these things out, I’m always afraid I’ll be disqualified if I do). Do I edit or forget making it look elegant. Form or function? The old conundrum.

But now, with computers and the ability to use minuscule type, it’s possible to say as much as you want and still make it look good. Form and function can both be achieved! The only problem here is that I am required to place my final review comments on the original (signed by both the worker and the chain of superiors) form. Last year I was allowed to simply create an additional attachment page to write as much as I wanted. Life was good.

I’d planned to do the same this year when I was informed that OHR (personnel) had issued a clarifying email that stated we were no longer allowed to do this. Everything had to be on the original. Deep down, really deep down, I understood the importance of this. After all, this was a legal document and if a negative job action had to be taken, it was important to uphold the veracity of that document. But, I appealed to my boss anyway.

He deferred to Admin (but warned me to give into the “force” now, for my sake). And Admin pointed to OHR. I invoked my patented “is this worth fighting for?” internal bureaucratic checksum system. It immediately sent a warning to cease and desist this futile action. I resigned myself to figuring out how to put all I’d writen in the space alloted on the original form.

The choices: use a typewriter (where even the Elite typeface was sure to mess the form beyond the beyond, and besides, there was a long line to use the only typewriter on our floor) or cut and paste into the original form. But I couldn’t actually cut and paste something onto the form, it had to be entered directly on that sheet! This was why I never became a graphic designer. Despite my Masters degree in the subject, in the olden days, I hated doing real pasteups.

I was trapped (indulge me this one obscure inside joke). The only way to do it was to type my assessment in a copy of each worker’s review, making sure not to write more than the original space alloted. Then print it and use pieces of paper and whiteout to block out everything on the form but my appraisal (especially the column lines). With the comments in the right place I’d feed the signed review into the copier and, hopefully, it would fit perfectly in the right space.

It took me a good two hours to cover everything up on my staff’s documents. I printed out blank copies to practice copying on. I was tense. Would it work?

I assembled everything I needed and walked quickly to the copier. The first test showed that it sort of fit. Not perfectly: it was a little crooked, the margins were a bit uneven, and, yes, a recalcitrant word slipped beyond the boundary here and there. But then it hit me: IT DIDN’T MATTER IF IT FIT PERFECTLY! All along I had been focusing on my high design standards when it was the very different office standards that really mattered. OHR didn’t care if my review looked good! They simply wanted it on the signed original! The tension vaporized. I began to breathe again. It was over. They were done and they were done perfectly.

3 replies
  1. Donna says:

    “may I recommend monthly reports, if only to remind you in December of what wondrous things you did in January?” – are these months reversed?

  2. Jeff says:

    Actually not, Donna.
    If you start your list in January, then by the time you need to start compiling your accomplishments in December (or January of the next year if you procrastinate), then you’ll be prepared.
    Let’s see if I can make that clearer: You’ve got Year A and Year B. If you start your list in January of Year A, then by December of Year A (or January of Year B) you’ll be set!
    Make sense?

  3. Carolyn says:

    Having been on the giving and receiving end of performance evaluations, I can readily state that in the grand scheme of things, the higher ups don’t really care what’s on the papers. So long as they get their copies…signed, etc. The only time the PE’s really matter is when you are trying to fire, discipline, or promote somebody.
    It boils down to…much ado about…

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