County government fights performance reviews

With the exception of Fire-Rescue, which has its own collective bargaining agreement, Palm Beach County government has not required departments to perform annual employee performance evaluations since 2004. Fire-Rescue officials have been trying to persuade the International Association of Fire Fighters to eliminate its annual evaluations for years, and they are continuing to try to have them removed from this year’s ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.

This is one of many points of disagreement between the two parties and one that has yet to be resolved. The department argues that the regular employee evaluations are ineffective and create unnecessary paperwork. But Matthew Mierzwa Jr., the union’s negotiating attorney, expressed shock that anyone would want employee reviews removed from management’s toolbox.

“We think they can be an effective tool for evaluation and improvement,” Mierzwa said. “It makes no sense why anyone would want to get rid of them.”

Fire-Rescue Chief Steve Jerauld countered that the agency is not trying get rid of the evaluation process as a whole; it is merely looking for a more effective method that reflects an employee’s true value.

Wayne Condry, director at Palm Beach County Human Resources Department, defended the county’s 2004 decision to dump the reviews, saying the Communication Workers of America union opposed the annual reviews.

“Employees felt feedback got to be a chore,” Condry said. “The reviews are now done by exception, if performance falls below a standard.”

While each department is free to conduct its own evaluations, Condry pointed out that there is no uniform mandate on how often the reviews should be performed and no countywide initiative that requires consistency. The county Clerk and Comptroller’s Office, for example, conducts reviews every six months, while a number of other departments haven’t reviewed their employees’ performance for several years.

So why is the county so eager to do without annual performance reviews? Perhaps it is just following the example of the federal government.

In a recent article, USA Today reported: “The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 — 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance, says John Palguta, former research chief at the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, which handles federal firing disputes.”

According to Wikipedia’s definition, a performance appraisal “is a part of guiding and managing career development. It is the process of obtaining, analyzing, and recording information about the relative worth of an employee to the organization.”

If that is the case, it would seem that frequent evaluations would be valuable to both the employee and the employer.

John R. Smith, a Palm Beach County businessman and Chairman of BizPac, agreed.

“I don’t see how any organization with substance, public or private, can operate effectively without performance evaluations,” Smith said. “Promotions and salary increases should be rewards for good performance, but how does a manager know unless an evaluation is done? Management is entitled to know what kind of performance they’re getting for the money they’re spending in salaries, and employees are entitled to know whether management thinks they’re doing a good job or a poor job.”

My interviews with both Fire-Rescue and human resources staff revealed that the evaluations are only as good as the people conducting them, making for a flawed system due to laziness and lack of training, among other factors. Here’s a suggestion: Maybe the county should consider reinstating the reviews and start evaluating the supervisors grading the work of those they’re supervising.

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