A few years ago, my employer adopted a new pay system. Say what you want about the old General Schedule, but it was nothing If not predictable. Stay alive and employed for X number of years and you knew precisely where your salary would fall. This new system, riddled with administrative complexity and ostensibly based on the “pay for performance” concept, makes any such projection somewhere between impossible and useless.
The cornerstone of our new pay system is our individual written narrative – an annual self-assessment of what we’ve done and why it theoretically matters. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that kind of introspection… although by definition, the better you are at writing and telling your own story, the better you’re apt to do in the face of the committees charged with reviewing these self-assessments. Fortunately, in this system, as in NSPS before it, I do a reasonably good job of detailing why I’m absolutely wonderful. It’s not a system you’d want to work under if you’re in any way self-deprecating.
The theory here is that if pay is somehow tied to the value of individual contributions, people will be more engaged and work harder. I suppose it’s true up to a point. Once you’ve crashed into the upper limit of your designated “pay band,” the remunerative reward for working harder is pretty limited. Sure, you can qualify for a year-end bonus calculated using one of the more Byzantine formulas devised by the mind of man, but in raw percentage terms it’s not much… and 40% of not much is going to be immediately taxed back to the Treasury.
I’m only pondering the system at all, because I recently received the annual notice from the boss that it was time to send in my self-assessment. With so little at stake, it’s hard to imagine sweating too long or hard over the words than end up on the page. It’ll get done and I’m sure the writing will be lovely. I’ll assess myself as the ideal employee doing great work for God and country… and then the various committees and formulas will drive my scores towards the median and an appropriately middle of the road bonus will be awarded.
I’ll be forgiven, I hope, if I don’t find the process particularly motivational or apt to improve my performance in any meaningful way.
It’s that magical time of the bureaucratic year where I have to describe how wonderful I am and what important work I’ve done in the last year.
Let me say for the record that I have no problem at all talking about myself… especially when it has a bearing on how much money I’ll make over the next twelve months. When performance appraisal time rolls around, I’m my own biggest fan and cheerleader – a happy warrior bent on carving out as much of the performance award pool as I can for myself. It’s most decidedly not the time to be shy.
What I’ve found, after two days of tinkering around with how to write my self-assessment this week, is trying to define and describe your value added in a plague year is, in a word, interesting.
So far, it’s looking a lot like this:
Thing 1 – Cancelled due to Plague
Thing 2 – Cancelled due to Plague
Thing 3 – Heavily modified due to Plague
Thing 4 – Business as usual
Thing 5 – Has gone absolutely batshit crazy and now takes two people to do… due to Plague
If there’s ever been a moment where I’m thankful for the ability to string together a large number of long and important sounding words, this is it.
I mean surely there are plenty of creative ways I can say “Redistributed workload to support alternative missions in support of emerging and immediate requirements in inter- and intra-organizational cross-functional operations in the COVID-19 environment across the enterprise.”
Yeah, I’m not 100% sure what it means either, but it sounds like something important might have happened, right?
1. Performance appraisal. I’ve spent more time than I want to admit this week dicking around with the required “self assessment” section of my annual performance appraisal. It feels like a monumental waste of time. The “old” evaluation system was a pain in the ass too, but at least it was consistent. You could copy and paste big chunks of content from year to year, change some dates and key words and then move on with a minimum amount of fuss and trouble. Since the system we’re now under is “new to us” if not exactly new, it’s starting from a blank page… which translates into more time fiddling. Look, when you’ve been told, albeit in a roundabout way, that the system is designed to drive people to the middle and prevent too many from being way out in high performer land, the incentive to make the end product immaculate is pretty low. Instead of the time and effort going into this new evaluation, it feels like we could have been just as well served by accepting that if we were fucks ups, someone would have told us by now, and that our raise will in all likelihood be within a hair’s breadth of the average unless you’ve done something breathtakingly good or bad in the last 356 days. Going though all the added motions really just adds insult to injury.
2. “Upgrading” software. I don’t mind software upgrades that improve the function of my equipment or make it somehow more secure. I do mind software upgrades that fail to install on the first attempt and then run in the background indefinitely consuming system resources while providing no way to stop them from the user side. Sadly there is absolutely nothing I’m empowered to do about the low bidder equipment or substandard tech support we’re saddled with other than bitch and complain about it at each and every opportunity. So I guess I’ll either limp along as is until the aborted update grinds my system to a complete halt or the admins throw my machine off the network for not having received the update. If only there were a great big organization in change of electronic communications I could call on for help in these situations. You can’t see it but I’ve rolled my eyes so hard I’m currently staring at the inside of my head.
3. Thursday. Well, not just Thursday. I’m just really kind of over weekdays in general. I’m tired of dealing with people. I’m tired of the same bureaucratic and administrative Groundhog Day experience every five out of seven days. I want to sit on the living room floor dispensing ear rubs and playing tug with the dogs, drinking coffee, and reading books… and I’d like for that to happen without finding myself quickly driven into bankruptcy. The dogs have become accustomed to a certain level of lifestyle (and medical care) and I need an ever increasing amount of space for book storage, so that pretty much precludes any radical changes to how I spend the average weekday. Most of the time, the week goes by with a dull “meh,” but this week it’s more of a roaring angsty rage. Good times. Im glad we’ve had this chance to talk.
I’m about to be dropped into the 4th “performance appraisal” system I’ll have worked under during the last 16 years. Based on the 8-hour mandatory training there isn’t much new under the sun. I’m going to tell my boss what I think I did. He’s going to tell me how well I did it. And someone above him is going to agree or disagree with the story we’ve crafted.
I’m sure rolling out a new system is quite a feather in someone’s cap… although just because it’s taken years and tens of millions of dollars to accomplish doesn’t really mean there will be much to show for the effort beyond the implementation team getting “top boxed” on their own next appraisal.
I’m not sure I learned anything new today beyond the fact that we’re, at long last, moving from pen and ink to an online system that captures almost the exact same information. How much I trust such a system to be up and running when I might actually need to use it is another issue entirely. Of course even the best performance appraisal system is only effective at all if anyone bothers to make management decisions based on the results. You can put me firmly in the, “we’ll see” category on that one.
Experience tells me the more likely outcome is that over time evaluations across the board will migrate from the middle of the bell curve, where most belong if only by definition, to a place where everyone’s score is inflated back to the top box, which makes objective evaluation effectively meaningless.
That’s not my egg to suck, though. My egg was purely concerned with meeting the objective of attending the mandatory training and not in any way involved with designing a more perfect system. Color me mission accomplished.