Many state employees don’t get evaluated, auditors find, citing poor training of supervisors

By Meg Tully


Not enough supervisors are getting training in the state government’s employee performance evaluation training program, state auditors have found.

State law requires every state government employee to have twice-yearly performance evaluations. A June report by Office of Legislative Audits found that on average 5,600 were not evaluated at all from fiscal 2012 to 2016, according to the Department of Budget and Management, amounting to 10% to 16% of the executive branch workforce.

Some agencies evaluated almost all employees, but others, such as Public Safety, evaluated less than 70% of the people who work there.

“Based on our audit results,” Legislative Auditor Thomas Barnickel told legislators in the report, the Performance Evaluation Program “may not be meeting its stated purpose” due to lack of training for supervisors.

Six different Hogan administration cabinet secretaries — from the departments of Health, Human Services, Natural Resources, Public Safety, Transportation and Budget — responded to the report. They said they were making major changes in the way officials track evaluations and training for supervisors to make sure they know how to properly complete the mandated performance evaluations.

AFSCME responds

AFSCME Maryland, a union representing state and university workers, said that its members often report supervisors aren’t adequately trained in how to use the Performance Evaluation Program system, and some seem to be directed not to give outstanding ratings. The union supports accurate performance assessments.

“One of our folks’ core concerns about the process is that because people are not being accurately accessed, many state workers are reporting very low morale,” said Katie Moy-Santos, communications director for AFSCME Maryland.

State employees are doing more and are years behind in adequate cost of living adjustments and step pay increases, she said.

A major report on staffing adequacy by the Department of Legislative Services in January confirmed the union’s assessment and found that there were at least 2,600 positions in state government that needed to be filled. In the past 16 years, over 6,500 positions in state government have been eliminated, though there has been substantial job growth in the university system.

“The bottom line here is not having fair ratings, state employees aren’t recognized for additional effort and work they’re putting in,” Moy-Santos said.

The union will be entering contract negotiations with the state this fall, and some aspects of the evaluation program may be discussed, she said.

‘Train the trainer’ course a bust

The Department of Budget and Management trained some select supervisors on how to complete the evaluations, intending that they go back to their agencies and train other supervisors. Auditors found that they weren’t told formally they should do that.

DBM didn’t require agencies to track training provided to supervisors nor determine if the training delivered was valuable, the audit found.

A survey of supervisors found 15 of 66 supervisors sampled either had not been trained or said the training they got was not useful.

Given the scale of supervisors to train, formal policies are important. More than 7,000 employees as of July 2017 were in supervisory or managerial positions that should be subject to this training, the audit found. (AFSCME has complained in the past that too many positions are classified as supervisors.)

“We respectfully disagree that we did not communicate this expectation since the subject of the training indicated that it was ‘train-the-trainer’ PEP training; however, we do agree that for a variety of reasons known only to the individual agencies, in many cases the training was not delivered,” the DBM Office of Personnel Services and Benefits stated in its reply.

The department does offer online training directly to all supervisors and managers through The Hub, the state’s online learning management system.

On an individual agency level, the audit found none of the five agencies reviewed had a documented process to track and monitor their supervisors to make sure they had gotten training. HR management in three of four agencies told auditors they had no procedure to track supervisor training.

At the Maryland Department of Transportation, supervisor training is strongly recommended but not mandatory, according to the audit, which recommended a formal policy of mandatory training for each supervisor.

The Transportation Department told the auditors that it is developing a new platform that will allow for centralized monitoring, distribution and tracking of training that should be in place by the end of 2018. It would include requirements for supervisor training on evaluations.

Training, specific goals critical

Tracie Sponenberg, who serves on an expert panel for the national Society for Human Resource Management, a professional society representing 285,000 members in the HR field, said that training supervisors in completing evaluations is critical in any performance review program.

In her position as the senior vice president in Human Resources for The Granite Group, a plumbing, heating, cooling and water supply company in New Hampshire, she said they offered training each time they rolled out a new program for evaluations and she also spent a lot of time on one-on-one meetings to train supervisors.

“I think that’s really critical not only because we use software that can be confusing to people but also what do you put in a performance review, how do you document poor performance? How does it work?” Sponenberg said.

The HR field has many different approaches to performance evaluations, and she said no one has a perfect system so it is still evolving. One trend emerging from HR tech conferences is a greater emphasis on feedback systems used constantly throughout the year, perhaps with on-on-one meetings quarterly to review, rather than a traditional annual evaluation.

“What we’ve seen with the traditional performance review process is it’s done because it has to be done and it’s not as meaningful as it could be,” Sponenberg said. “So I think as an HR community we’re trying to figure out ways to make that more meaningful.”

Those tracking systems are updated frequently and in real time with opportunities for supervisor notes, peer feedback and specific goals.

Sponenberg said considering the size of Maryland’s state government, it’s not unusual that only 80% to 90% of employees had been evaluated annually. But that’s unfortunate since that may be the only time employees get feedback.

For those employees who do get an evaluation, she said, it is critical that supervisors are trained to do them and include specific goals for employees to meet so they know what is important to their employer.

Effectiveness of evaluations questioned

Maryland state law mandates that all state agencies complete two evaluations of the performance of each state employee. One is a more informal mid-year appraisal where the supervisor and employee meet and discuss the work; the other is an end-of-year evaluation that is shared with management above the immediate supervisor.

Twenty-eight percent of supervisors and 21% of employees in an anonymous survey of 119 employees from various state agencies reported that the performance evaluation program was not meeting its stated purpose of facilitating communication between employees and supervisors about expectations and job performance. Another 18% of the supervisors said they had “no opinion,” leaving just over half of the supervisors who felt the evaluations accomplished their purpose.

The auditors also tested evaluations for the six months that ended June 30, 2016, by looking at 189 employees from four large agencies. They found that 114 employees, or 60%, did not have any specific tasks to be achieved during the next rating period.

However, DBM’s Office of Personnel Services and Benefits’ said it will issue best practices to agencies to help make sure evaluations have performance standards and are properly completed.

“The fact that some employees (ranging between 21 to 28%) believe that the PEP is not an effective tool for evaluating performance is not, in and of itself, evidence of ineffectiveness; however, we agree that enhancements to our guidance and training materials would be useful and we agree to make those adjustments,” the DBM office response stated.