Making Public Safety Performance Evaluations Work

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here again! In my last two articles, I talked about the importance of evaluating probationary employees and what happens when performance evaluations—for all employees—are not taken seriously. This article focuses on how to make performance evaluations work.

Quick reminder: As a lawyer I hate performance evaluations. As a risk manager I love them—but only when they are taken seriously.

Proper Performance Evaluation Design
Assuming your current performance evaluation system is properly designed, you may just need to implement some internal control measures to make sure the process is being taken seriously. But what constitutes a “properly designed” performance evaluations system? To me, it’s one that has:
• Meaningful job descriptions
• Identified objectives for each job
• A process to ensure employees are meeting these objectives
• A process to collect and analyze data regarding an employee’s performance
• Goals for the next reporting period
• A validated rating system

With respect to this rating system, you only need three categories: Meets Standards, Exceeds Standards, and Doesn’t Meet Standards. Over the years I have seen up to nine categories of performance—this is absolutely unnecessary. Either people are doing the job or not doing the job. Some (the “10 percenters”) will exceed standards and some (the other 10 percenters) will not meet standards. Everyone else will be in between—and that’s OK. There is nothing wrong with receiving an evaluation that says you “meet standards.”

For those not meeting standards, you need a performance improvement plan to help them get up to speed—a roadmap to successful performance. The employee’s progress along this roadmap must be monitored. And if the employee can’t or won’t meet standards, then it is time to find them a job in the organization more in line with their abilities, or separate them from the organization.

You will also need strict management control of the performance evaluation process. For example, all performance evaluations should be reviewed by management prior to them being signed by the employee and supervisor. Along with that, you need a robust audit process to ensure the process is being taken seriously by supervisors and the managers reviewing these documents.

Making the Transition
If you are committed to your current system, it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to implement these changes instantly. How do you transition from a system in which everyone is overrated to one where people are honestly evaluated? Perhaps you can take a moratorium on the performance evaluation process for a couple of years, inform the employees that there will be a commitment to building a system in which people are evaluated honestly, and then gradually move into the new approach.

One of the most expensive lawsuits in public safety organizations is allegations of a “hostile work environment” with regard to protected class status.

As long as you are doing this, here are a couple of ideas to improve the process. I would love to see an annual test that focuses on each employee’s core critical tasks. Every public safety job has a very small number of tasks that carry a very real risk of tragedy if they aren’t performed correctly. These core critical tasks need to be identified through a proper risk assessment, and your personnel need to be tested on these tasks regularly.

If you have been to my live programs in the past, you know that one of my pet peeves is that after you get off probation (assuming you choose not to promote), you have taken your last serious test. The only time we find out that a cop does not know the shooting policy is after a bad shooting. The only time we find out a firefighter does not know the harassment policy is after a lawsuit is filed. This is too late, because now you are in “Lawyerville.”

An annual test on core critical tasks would help prevent many tragedies from occurring. The only acceptable level of knowledge on this test would be 100 percent. When all of your people are achieving this score, it is time to redo the test and make it tougher. Our public and our personnel deserve better than minimum standards.

“Graham, you are nuts! You will never get this testing idea past the union!”
Then why don’t we have the union help write the test?
“But if we have the union help write the test, then the employees will know the answers!”
And your point is?

The APE Tool
One of the most expensive lawsuits in public safety organizations is HR-related—specifically, allegations of a “hostile work environment” with regard to protected class status. As a lawyer, if I am suing your organization for a hostile work environment I must prove five things in court:

1. My client is a member of a protected class.
2. There are behaviors going on in the workplace that are negatively impacting my client.
3. The organization knew or should have known about these behaviors.
4. The organization failed to stop these behaviors.
5. Due to your failure to act, my client has suffered a harm or loss and you owe my client damages.

In lawyer-speak this is the “burden of proof.” In risk management terms, this is an identifiable risk and thus a manageable risk.

Enter a tool I call APE—annual performance evaluation. I put this document together in the 1980s and it’s still valid today. Many private- and public-sector organizations have used it with success.

Here is the purpose of APE. During the annual performance evaluation process the supervisor (or perhaps HR) is required to review the harassment policy with every employee. The employee then answers some questions (documented on the evaluation) regarding their knowledge of the policy and what to do if they ever have a problem.

Of what value is this? Five years from now, when some member of your organization sues you for hostile work environment and they list all of the allegations of the bad behavior that has been going on for years, and claim they did not know what to do and that management does not care, etc., you have a document (APE) that might just save you a year in expensive lawyer fees.

For those of you who are interested in obtaining a copy of this tool, please contact Lexipol. Of course, before you change any processes in your organization, make sure you run it by competent counsel.

So that wraps it up for my thoughts on performance evaluations. Remember: They’re great when they are taken seriously. But if you are not committed to taking them seriously, they are just another problem lying in wait.


TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Regardless of what process you have in place to complete performance evaluations, you must make a commitment to gathering data (to support the evaluation) daily. Make it your goal to document each employee’s performance every day. At the end of the rating period you will have a ton of “specific articulable facts” to support your ratings. If you do this diligently, there will be no surprises for the given employee, and the time you spend preparing the final document will be reduced tremendously.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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