Performance Appraisal Systems —Advantages and Weaknesses
Successful rating method can improve both morale and job quality, but officers must first learn how to use techniques to achieve goals
Almost all fire service officers become involved with performance appraisal at some time or other. Unfortunately, many performance appraisal systems are not very effective, but are continued because higher management requires it. But, considering the potential of performance appraisal, they should not be allowed to just exist. Instead, they should be reworked until the disadvantages are overcome.
This article describes the types of appraisal systems available, some of the reasons for their failure and some suggestions for an improved system.
An analysis of the goals of an appraisal system points out their importance to a fire department. A performance appraisal should:
- Encourage officers to observe their subordinates more closely.
- Motivate employees by providing feedback on their performance.
- Provide data for management concerning transfers, promotions, or dismissal.
- Provide a method for determining training needs.
- Establish a research and reference base for personnel decisions.
The first step in the process is for the fire officer to be aware of the available types of appraisal systems. Then, selection of the system used in a particular fire department can be based on (1) the one most likely to achieve a particular objective and (2) the one least vulnerable to the obstacles discussed later.
Each of the techniques below is discussed in order of increasing complexity, while the accompanying table indicates the advantages and disadvantages of each system.
Essay Appraisal: This type of appraisal system asks the rater to write a paragraph or more covering an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, potential and so on.
Graphic rating scale: This scale requires that the supervisor assess a subordinate on the quality and quantity of his work. Statements such as outstanding, above average, average, or below average are used to describe the work. In addition, the rater is asked to scale certain personality traits like reliability and cooperation. Other specific performance areas whidi can be structured by the individual fire department include report writing and instructionability.
Field review: The field review is brought into use when there might be a rater bias; when one rater may be using too high or too low a set of standards; or if a comparability of ratings is necessary. This type of appraisal system brings a member from outside the immediate area (a chief or member of his administrative staff) to meet with the raters. At this meeting they (1) identify areas of disagreement in the rating (2) help the group arrive at a consensus rating, and (3) insure that the standards are applied uniformly.
This particular system can be combined with any of the others to be sure that the objectives established by the chief are being met.
Forced-choice rating: As in the field review, the forced-choice rating system is used to reduce rater bias and to permit comparison between employees. However, it differs from the field review in that a third party is not necessary.
The system operates by requiring the rater to choose a statement, from a prepared list, which best fits and least fits the individual. The statements are then weighted and scored by staff personnel. Higher scores indicate a better rating than lower ones. Since the rater has no idea concerning the weights to be applied, he cannot play favorites.
Critical incident: One of the ways of avoiding a negative atmosphere during an appraisal interview is to talk about specific incidents rather than in generalizations. In the critical incident method, the station officer keeps a record of both positive and negative performance. The employee’s performance, then, not his personality, is being criticized.
Management by objectives: To overcome the feeling that employees are being judged by unfairly high standards, the employees are asked to help set performance goals. These goals could range from a reduction of false alarms in the first-due area through an educational program to a reduction in the time it takes to perform a standard evolution.
Work standards: This particular approach permits comparisons of various employees at the same level but working for different supervisors. It allows subjective judgment decisions to be made while using the supervisor’s overall impression of the employee. This would be useful when evaluations for promotions are being considered.
Ranking methods can be divided into two different methods:
- Alternation ranking requires the supervisor to list the most valuable and then the least valuable employee in the group under consideration. Next, from the remaining list of employees, the most and least valuable employees are again selected.
- Paired comparison ranking compares each employee to every other one in the group. The employee that attains the most top rankings is the most valuable and so on down the line to the least valuable.
Assessment centers: All of the preceding appraisal systems deal with past performance. Assessment centers, however, try to estimate the potential of an employee at performing a higher job. It assists in making a judgment decision about who should be promoted even though the employee might have no supervisory experience.
These centers operate by bringing individuals from different stations together for working on individual and group assignments similar to the ones they would handle if promoted. The pooled judgment of the observers (derived from either paired or alternative ranking) leads to a ranking of each participant.
Common causes of failure
By avoiding the common causes of failure shown below, the officer should be able to develop a useful and workable appraisal system.
Too many conflicting objectives: Many supervisors try to use the appraisal interview to do too many things. For example, they tell employees areas that need improvement and also that a salary increase was recommended. Once the employee finds out about the salary, the remainder of the appraisal interview is of no interest.
Desire to avoid unpleasantness: Many officers do not like to have a direct confrontation with an employee, as required for a performance appraisal. As a result, either the supervisor fails to conduct the interview or all employees are given a high rating.
Skill requirements: The officer must possess a great deal of skill to cause an employee to improve his performance. Unfortunately, most officers receive little formal training in the conduct of an appraisal interview and, therefore, are involved in random development of the required skill. The officer must be aware that appraisals are a continuing process, not just a once-a-year thing.
Communications: The officer must meet with the employee to inform him of what is expected. Not only must the officer make the present duties clear, but also what future changes are expected and what obstacles may be encountered in trying to perform the job.
Formal procedures: The formal procedures used by most fire departments require that evaluation records be kept for many years. This causes many officers to hesitate before writing a critical appraisal because it stays with the employee even if the infraction is a minor one. A critical appraisal, no matter how many favorable ones follow, will cause a problem for the employee.
If the officer must pass the evaluation to his superior, he may be tempted to just try and please the superior. The employee, then, does not receive a just appraisal. Still another problem with the formal procedure is the fact that the officer sets up the interview in his office, and he does most of the talking. This formal atmosphere tends to intimidate the employee.
Reference frame: The officer often has a different viewpoint or expectation for a particular employee’s level of work. The typical employee performs at an acceptable level most of the time. When poor performance occurs, the officer gets involved and remembers the incident. The employee is, however, aware of those times when performance went beyond that which is required and he remembers those incidents. For this reason, disagreement occurs during the appraisal interview.
Taking corrective action on the preceding items will help toward producing a successful performance appraisal system. In addition, the following items will also assist:
Helpful and constructive attitude of officers: There is research evidence to show that the more an officer criticizes an employee, the more the latter will react defensively. Constructive responses to criticism are not usually seen. Instead, positive motivation, such as listening to an employee, recognizing good performance, and taking the attitude of a helper, will create greater mutual understanding as a result of the interview.
Subordinate participation: When an employee has an opportunity to participate in the goal-making, he feels more motivated and interested in his job. In addition, the focus or emphasis of the interview should be on the employee’s future expected performance rather than the past.
Job problems: The elimination of many outside problem areas will aid in isolating the performance appraisal so that both the officer and employee can concentrate on it. Outside areas which can be eliminated include noncooperation of other employees, equipment difficulties or lack of officer support.
Based upon the set of goals established in the introduction, the following methods can be used to achieve them:
Encourage officers to observe their subordinates more closely through:
- Actual incident appraisal.
- Management by objectives.
Motivate employees by providing feedback on their performance through:
- Management by objectives.
- Work standards.
- Actual incident, if the results are to be supplied in writing.
Provide data for management concerning transfers, promotions, and dismissals through:
- Forced-choice rating form.
- Assessment center.
- Graphic rating scale supplemented with field reviews.
- Ranking method.
Provide a method for determining training needs through:
- Essay and graphic rating combined.
- Assessment centers.
- Forced-choice rating form.
Establish a research and reference base for personnel decisions through:
- Essay and graphic rating combined.
- Ranking methods.
By improving the probability that good performance will be recognized and rewarded and poor performance corrected, a sound appraisal system can contribute both to organizational morale and organizational performance. Moreover, the alternative to a bad appraisal program need not be no appraisal program at all, but one which matches practice to purpose.