Dear Bureaucrat,

This is my first full year working at my agency, so it’s the first time I’ll get an annual employee evaluation. Is there anything I should be doing to get ready for the evaluation meeting with my supervisor? My salary doesn’t change based on the evaluation, so should I even care about it?

Signed, Lake Wobegon Effect

Dear Wobegon,

Your annual evaluation matters, even if it does not affect your pay directly. (Pay-for-performance schemes were a fad in the public sector some years ago, but they have mostly died out.) The annual evaluation is the one time your employer has to make an official statement about how well you do your job.

When you apply for a promotion or career development opportunity from your current employer, or apply for a job somewhere else, your record of evaluations will be part of your qualifications. If your employer gives bonuses or awards, even if they are not based on your annual evaluation, the awarding official may be reluctant to stick his neck out by making a judgement that is inconsistent with your most recent evaluation. And if you ever get into a dispute where your employer may take action against you, your record of evaluations strengthens your case that you are a good employee.

A small share of employees are rated by objective measures, such as evaluating a teacher by student test scores or a customer service agent by number of calls handled. These measures may seem fair, but they have risks. You might be compared to workers who have easier assignments; for example, you might work the shift that tends to get the most long-winded callers. You might be compared to workers who are playing to the performance measures rather than doing their jobs properly, such as coaching students for the test instead of educating them. Or you might be compared to results obtained by fraud, such as the recurring cases of Veterans Administration hospital managers falsifying waiting lists to meet a performance goal.

If your evaluation will include objective measures, then try to figure out half way through the year whether you are on track to meet the standards. If you’re not, consider shifting your priorities from the aspects of your job that are not evaluated to those that are, or start trying to convince your management that the measures do not accurately reflect your performance.

But most employee evaluations do not use objective measures. Instead, your supervisor will rate you on several subjective criteria, which may be as vague as “communication and coordination.” The criteria may be dressed up with descriptive language, or even numbers, to make them seem less arbitrary, such as “achieve a 20 percent increase in quality.” But if the evaluation rules do not define how quality is measured, or whether achieving a 20 percent increase qualifies as outstanding or just satisfactory, or whether extenuating circumstances can justify a good evaluation even if 20 percent is not achieved, then the criterion is still subjective.

A lot of factors will influence how your supervisor scores you, including his impression of you and your work, any requirements from above such as not to give all his employees top scores, and repercussions the scores might have on him such as grievances from any employees who he scores lower.

The good news is that you can probably influence your supervisor’s evaluation of you, by giving him additional information about your performance. Jonah E. Rockoff et al ran an experiment where they asked school principals to evaluate each teacher who worked for them. Then the experimenters gave the principals a “value-added” estimate of each teacher’s effect on their students’ standardized test scores. Later, the principals evaluated their teachers again, and the new evaluations were significantly closer to the value-added estimates the experimenters had given them. The principals changed their evaluations based on the value-added estimates, even though at the start of the experiment most of the principals said they already knew who the more and less effective teachers were, from classroom observation, test scores and other information.

I expect there were two reasons the new information affected the principals’ evaluations. First, the new information convinced them that their previous opinion of some employees’ effectiveness was not exactly right. Second, the principals faced a risk that if they were ever in a dispute over their evaluation of a teacher, a big gap between their evaluation and the value-added estimate could be used as evidence the principal was wrong. (The experimenters promised confidentiality, but we bureaucrats have learned that information can leak.)

So if you show your supervisor additional information about your job performance, it can influence your annual evaluation. You should collect this information all year long: emails from higher-ups complimenting your work; your own notes about your accomplishments; assignments you took on beyond your normal duties; incidents where you pitched in with effort or expertise to help your coworkers; circumstances beyond your control that interfered with meeting goals, etc.

A few weeks before your evaluation, organize the evidence you have collected into categories for the criteria you will be evaluated on. Your supervisor may not invite you to meet about your evaluation until after he has filled it in, but take the initiative to meet before that if possible, so he will not feel a need to defend what he has already written. Walk him through the evidence of your performance. The main objective is to give him a good impression of your accomplishments. The second objective is to subtly let him see that the case for giving you a good evaluation is well-documented.

Most supervisors consider the annual evaluations a disagreeable chore, and try to get through it as quickly as possible. But it is worth your effort to build a case for your exceptional performance, walk your boss through it, and get the best possible evaluation on the record.

Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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