LEO supervisors, the results are in. It’s all about YOU!
Supervisor interaction and performance feedback is the glue between officers feeling valued and performing at or above standards
In every industry, the glue connecting job satisfaction and feeling valued is the level of interaction employees have with their direct supervisor. Providing performance feedback for your employees is vital to their success and the organization while minimizing the problems lying in wait.
State of the Industry Survey findings on performance feedback
Police 1 conducted its second annual State of the Industry survey in December 2021 of 2,376 law enforcement officers covering urban, suburban and rural locations across the country. Of those who responded, it was clear that officers, ranging from newly hired to officers with more than 30 years on the job, all agree that performance expectations are too vague, not clearly communicated and the performance review process is not taken seriously. In addition, respondents don’t feel recognized for their work and have a lack of trust in taking problems to their supervisors.
To clarify how the actual performance evaluation system and process work, respondents were asked if they knew how their performance was measured at their respective agencies. Interestingly, 47% of those with less than five years responded that they did not know how their performance was measured, which was slightly higher than officers with 5-20 years on the job, with a drop to 26% for those over 30 years of experience.
One of the correlated questions to this area of performance appraisals was surveying the level of trust respondents had with their supervisors. Each respondent was asked if they would approach their supervisor with a problem and trust that they would listen: 37% said they would take their concern to their supervisor and trust them to always listen, while 40% said they would approach their supervisor with a problem but trust they will listen only sometimes. Sixteen percent of respondents said they do not trust that their supervisor will listen if they approach them with a problem.
Although the percentage of respondents who would not take their problem to a supervisor average less than 10%, it increased to 12% for officers with less than five years, highlighting potential risk and future problems. In addition, 31% of respondents with 5-9 years felt their supervisor does not assess performance equally, similarly reflected by those with less than five years and those between 10-20 years with 26% and over 26%, respectively.
The last question connected to this discussion on performance feedback is how frequently they received recognition from their supervisor in the past year. Less than 20% say they often received recognition in four out of the five categories. Over 29% say they RARELY received recognition from their supervisor in the last year, and just over 16% said NEVER.
Another reminder about first-line supervisor feedback
Is this information surprising or new? Actually, no. There have been much past research and white papers around performance evaluation systems, processes and approaches where data in those studies similarly mirror this one. For example, COPS, USDOJ and PERF developed a guidebook, “Implementing a Comprehensive Performance Management Approach in Community Policing Organizations, An Executive Guidebook” offering contemporary strategies to create procedurally just performance management processes, policies and systems.
Identified in the research to develop the guidebook, the authors discovered the need to focus more on developing tools for first-line supervisors to help them build their leadership and better assess officer performance. They determined continuous development of skills and leadership were needed to balance an annual written evaluation based on metrics or potential rater errors or bias.
There was congruence in understanding job expectations due to misunderstanding what was being evaluated based on what they were responsible for daily creating a disconnect “causing employees to view evaluation tools as invalid and unreliable.” This overlaps with how State of the Industry respondents didn't feel the evaluations impacted promotions or special assignments or allowed for their input during the annual performance review process.
In addition, Lexipol's Gordon Graham issued a white paper, Performance Evaluations: Worth the Risk? 4 common mistakes public safety agencies make with personnel assessments. The four mistakes he lists are recycling last year’s annual evaluations, overrating employee performance, greenlighting mediocrity and opening liability to retaliation claims.
What now? Recommendations for law enforcement leaders
So, what does this current sample of data say to law enforcement leaders? It’s time to dust off what we know, have read, or researched and put it into action. It is an excellent opportunity to implement more effective processes and develop leadership in your leadership teams to serve better and support staff right now.
Several promising approaches and practices provide performance feedback and design more relational systems. However, in any process or system, some people often need coaching, mentoring, training, or some assistance to help them succeed in their leadership roles.
A few things I recommend include the following:
As an executive officer of your agency, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you have a standardized policy around performance expectations and the review process?
- How frequently do supervisors and managers provide performance feedback to employees? Monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, or annually? How is feedback recorded? Monthly evaluations, annual reviews, or memorandums of counseling?
- Is there a pre-interview with the employee to allow them to give the supervisor or manager input?
- Is it strictly a performance review, or is employee development integrated (training, education, assignments, or promotional development)?
- Are evaluations conducted timely? Why is this important?
- How is the system connected to the agency’s goals and mission?
- What tools or materials are being used?
- What training is provided to the evaluators?
- What are the outcomes of an evaluation?
- Is there a clear understanding and definition of “meets standards,” “exceeds" and "unacceptable?”
- Does your performance rating rubric account for evaluating performance that is hard to quantify with metrics?
- Does your performance evaluation system help supervisors with consistency in ratings?
- Does the process include observing and diagnosing behavior and working toward a performance partnership with the employee?
- Do you provide training to your supervisors on annual performance appraisals? Do they receive training on how to coach their staff and identify skills needed to be effective in their leadership coaching?
For those in positions of leadership and have the responsibility of completing performance evaluations, here are some guidelines to help you in the process. For new employees, this will look different due to probationary reporting processes:
- Understanding and explaining the purpose of a performance appraisal for those who are giving and receiving them.
- Knowing what they are designed to provide that is timely feedback to employees for recognition, individual training, or development needs, clarify expectations on responsibilities and how they contribute to organizational goals, knowledge of policy and demonstrating good judgment, review important highlights over the year, and identify opportunities for promotional readiness or special assignments.
- Understanding you need to have a system for observing and monitoring employee performance for the entire year, not just at the annual review. Many agencies have employees fill out daily activity forms that translate to a monthly evaluation form and collectively become part of the yearly performance appraisal.
- Provide rating forms and explain the system of evaluation.
- Explain how there is subjectivity that will exist in portions of the appraisal process.
- Provide information regarding performance milestones if appropriate.
- Provide timely feedback during the rating period. Feedback should focus on what can be done to improve and less on what went wrong.
- Interview other managers and supervisors who worked with the employee prior to you.
- Use documented examples to support findings, identify strengths demonstrated and identify critical needs for improvement (most important development needs). Be careful of using your opinions without supporting evidence.
Make sure you are able to identify and avoid these pitfalls that limit the most effective feedback:
- Lack of documented examples of good and bad performance.
- Too general and subjective with comments.
- Focusing on performance deficiencies only.
- Using data from a prior reporting timeframe.
- Halo effects where the performance of one task influences the ratings of another.
- Contrast effects: rating based on other employees in contrast to very good or bad in contrast to very "low" or very "high" employees. Just be careful as this can be perceived as unfair as there is a totality of variables on “why” one employee has higher activity than another.
How to have an annual performance review counseling session:
- Meet with your employee at the beginning of the year for encouragement and clarification on expectations. This can be done in a meeting or ride-along, or over coffee. Involve them in their development and ask them to make sure to bring to your attention some of their performance highlights for a more credible and robust evaluation.
- A few months before completing an annual review, look over the previous month's activity and make notes. Reach out and address any issues or remind the employee to be prepared to share highlights of their performance they'd like to discuss during their upcoming review.
- When it’s time to discuss and go over the annual appraisal, pick a private location free from distractions and confidential if possible. Try to start with the positive aspects of the employee’s performance and correlate praise to specific performance behaviors like you should for those that need improvement. Check in with the employee to allow their thoughts, concerns and input to be heard. Include a discussion on future aspirations and offer a career, individual, or leadership development plan.
- Remember to follow up with your employees throughout the year to check in, give recognition, build rapport, be a resource and build better leaders.
I would be remiss if I did not include those who are recipients of an annual performance review as you have an active role in your development and leadership:
- Ask if you don't know or understand the expectations and responsibilities before your annual review is due.
- If you don’t understand how the annual review process works, ask your supervisor to explain.
- If you’re not happy with your results, ask for specific feedback on how to improve. If you feel unfairly rated, use your agency policy or MOU to guide your next steps.
- Offer your input on your performance throughout the year, basically, bring it to your supervisor’s attention when you need to if they don’t ask for your input.
- Have a vision for what you want to accomplish in your agency and have your supervisor help you create a career development plan or path that you review annually, along with your performance appraisal.
When considering what employees need most for support, what they need most is for supervisors to be equitable, be fair, effectively communicate expectations, recognize their achievements, and take time to listen and be responsive to their problems.