Performance Evaluations for Public Safety: Sowing the Seeds of Risk?

by | August 8, 2018

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

Gordon Graham here again. As promised in my last article, I want to continue talking about the importance of “getting and keeping good people” in your public safety agency. Today’s focus: understanding performance evaluations.

Please note that I did not say “the importance of performance evaluations.” I have a different view of performance evaluations than most people, and I would like you to reconsider your view of the entire process.

I will start off with this thought:


And before you dismiss this as the ramblings of some psycho ex-California cop who got hit in the head too many times, at least hear me out. As a lawyer, I have learned what performance evaluations are. They are written documents prepared annually (allegedly) without a lot of thought that then “lie in wait” until they come back to haunt the agency—which happens on a regular basis. As a lawyer, I have learned to hate performance evaluations because they pose risk. As a lawyer, I am risk-averse, so that is why I say do away with them.

But I also wear my “risk management” hat. And as a risk manager, I love performance evaluations. I love them, but with one caveat: I love them so long as they are taken seriously. A properly prepared performance evaluation is an excellent risk-management tool. It is a regular opportunity to assess how a given employee is currently doing and what future risks they may face, and provide appropriate control measures to address those risks, with the ultimate goal of improving the employee’s performance.

But here is the rest of the story. I have been around a long time, and have consulted in every one of the 50 states in this great country, and I am not aware of any public safety agency—not one—that takes performance evaluations seriously. They are a joke, and everyone knows they are a joke. Deep down, you know you agree with me.

With the advent of word processing some 25 years ago, performance evaluations have turned into a “search/replace” exercise in which a supervisor pulls up the last evaluation prepared for a given employee and asks himself, “How much do I have to change to make it look fresh?”If you actually believe your agency is taking performance evaluations seriously, I have a challenge for you. Assuming you have the authority to do this, go to your department files and pull up 10 performance evaluations at random that were prepared last year. After doing this, go back one more year and pull up the same employee evaluations prepared that year. Then compare the evaluations. I guarantee you that at least one of the 10 sets (possibly more) will be identical—with the exception of the date.If you want to continue this process, then take those 10 employee names to your internal affairs, professional standards or HR people and ask: “Have you had a negative contact with anyone of these 10 employees over this two-year window?” At least one of the employees will have had a negative contact. And what is said about that negative contact in the performance evaluation? NOTHING.

If you really want to continue, then give me a “drinking budget” and let me take the supervisors of these 10 employees out and get them drinking. Let me get them up to the 0.17 range (when loose lips sink ships) and then ask them, “So what do you really think about these employees?” I guarantee you that what they tell me when they are inebriated will be much more accurate than what they wrote in the performance evaluation.

Here is the bottom line for me: Your average cop or firefighter is overrated every year. You heard me correctly: Cops and firefighters are overrated.

Oh, to be fair, occasionally there is a supervisor who for some reason does not like an employee and they will deliberately underrate that person. But that is pretty rare, and when it occurs, the given employee will usually raise holy heck with their union and the executives, and there will be some type of investigation to determine the validity of the poor performance evaluation.

And why does this occur? One reason we tend to overrate people is bias. Supervisors and managers generally like their people—they have worked together, they know the spouses and the kids, and their employees are generally good people. Even if the supervisor wants to be accurate, there is a built-in bias in favor of their personnel.

But the real reason that cops and firefighters are overrated is … it’s easy. It is the path of least resistance. No one complains when they get overrated—this has never happened in the history of public safety. I cannot picture a cop or firefighter making an appointment with their chief and saying, “You have to do something about this, Boss—once again I have been overrated!” This has not and will not happen.

But if someone thinks they have been underrated, they will be pounding on the boss’s door with their union rep, and there will be some big investigation to determine the accuracy of the performance evaluation. The supervisor will be in the hot seat: “I just hope you can justify the ratings here, because the boss and the union are very angry, etc., etc.”

It is much easier to just overrate people because there will never be any complaint. And this is exactly where we are today in public safety. If you take people on and try to improve their performance, and they pitch a beef, you will likely be facing an allegation of bad behavior yourself. Ultimately, you get paid X. And if you overrate people to avoid problems, you still get paid the exact same X.

So if this is how things are, then what’s the problem? There are so many nasty consequences that occur when employees are overrated—but that is a discussion for our next article. Until then, thanks for reading and for all you are doing to improve the quality of our profession.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—If possible, conduct the audit I discussed earlier. Pull 10 evaluations and take a close look at them. Do the ratings of the given employee really reflect what you know about that employee? Is the performance evaluation just a reprint of the prior year’s document? I hope this is not the case, but I fear it is.

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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