Looking at officer evaluations from the supervisor’s perspective
Let’s face it, cops hate paperwork. We all wish it could be like television — chase the bad guys, catch them, put them away, then go back in service without any paperwork (all before the commercial break). The truth is, our profession is littered with documentation. As law enforcement supervisors, many of these administrative duties seem ridiculous and redundant, but performance evaluations should not be considered so. Evaluations are one of the greatest tools we as supervisors have in our administrative arsenal, but unfortunately many of us are failing to utilize them in an appropriate way. As a result, our subordinates are ultimately paying the price for our malfeasance.
We’ve all been there. The boss throws an evaluation on your desk and tells you it is due in a few days. We scramble through our notes scribbled on Burger King napkins, toss in some generic performance bullets we retrieved from some evaluation manual, sign our name, and then pass it down the line. We cross it off the old “to do list” and get back to “doing real police work.”
We as supervisors are missing a golden opportunity every time we approach the evaluation process this way.
I would like to discuss how we as supervisors can more effectively utilize evaluations to train and motivate our officers to be better performers. I would also like to challenge supervisors out there to get more involved in the ongoing evaluation process that occurs every day in our workplace. Lastly, I would like to share some tips I’ve learned over the years that have made evaluations an effective tool for motivating — and yes, even disciplining — some of the officers I’ve supervised.
Let me begin by pointing out the evaluation process is not just an annual or biannual responsibility — it is something we should be focusing on every day in the workplace. A truly effective evaluation process is continuous. It never stops! In more than 23 years of military and law enforcement supervision, I have read numerous evaluations, including some written about me by previous supervisors.
I’ve seen a disturbing lack of justification and specificity. I have seen performance statements and bullets copied and pasted from previous evaluations. I have seen “unsatisfactory” or “outstanding” scores supported by a mere sentence or two, with little to no supporting information. Most disturbing, I have noticed a lack of performance coaching. Supervisors, we need to do a better job supervising, mentoring, coaching, and developing our people for success. Below are a few pointers I believe will make the evaluation process not only less painful, but more effective.
Set Realistic, Attainable, and Practical Goals
Sit down with your subordinate at the beginning of the evaluation period. Discuss your expectations and goals for them, reduce these to a written format, and let them know you will be constantly evaluating their progress toward achieving these goals. Make sure the goals you are setting are practical and attainable in their current assignment. A bullet that states “make an impact in your assigned beat through interaction with the community” is generic and difficult to measure. Instead, tell the subordinate specifically what you want them to do: “contact three different neighborhood associations within your assigned beat and work with them to resolve criminal activity occurring in their neighborhood.”
It is important to remember personal performance goals should seamlessly align with your unit, division, and department goals. It is important to conduct periodic follow-up with subordinates to confirm their progress toward achieving these goals. This lets them know you are paying attention and that you care about their career progression.
Regularly Provide Performance Feedback
Don’t wait until the evaluation is due, but provide formal and informal positive and negative feedback every time you notice significant progress, or a lack thereof. This is part of the continuous evaluation process mentioned above. Human nature tells us people respond better when feedback provided is specific and timely in relation to the behavior.
Document, Document, Document
Keep an ongoing log of all the positive and negative performance benchmarks you observe. I use a simple excel spreadsheet with fill in the blank blocks for a date and what significant performance benchmark I observed. Some departments now utilize electronic comments files to document these bullets. The point is, find a way to effectively document performance so you can write an accurate and specific evaluation.
Be a Performance Coach
Don’t wait for your subordinates to fail. Provide them training, direction, coaching, and constant feedback throughout the evaluation period. Performance coaching should not only be used to correct performance shortfalls, it should also be used to reinforce positive performance. Sometimes our folks need to hear they are doing a great job.
Write an Accurate and Specific Evaluation
There is nothing worse than reading your own evaluation and feeling disappointed your supervisor failed to recognize and document significant achievements. Whether we admit it or not, we all have a need for praise and acceptance by our leaders. Conversely, failing to document poor repeated performance can hinder a department from taking appropriate disciplinary action when an officer fails to improve their performance.
The rule of thumb in writing a police report is “if it is not documented, it never happened.” It is much the same with evaluations. Accurately documenting poor performance and the steps taken to correct performance shortfalls (training, mentoring, and coaching,) is critical in the disciplinary process. Let’s face it; some subordinates stubbornly refuse to change their attitudes and behaviors. This can create a cancer in your organization if not properly dealt with.
The STAR Model
The military uses an effective acronym to remind supervisors how to properly document performance in an evaluation, STAR.
Situation/Task – Describe the specific situation or task that needed to be performed given the circumstances.
Action – What action did the subordinate take? Be specific about what they did to bring about the result.
Result – What was the positive or negative outcome as a result of the performance action? What was accomplished?
In closing I have a message for senior administrators: You are the gatekeepers of your organization. It is your responsibility to ensure all levels of supervision are writing effective, accurate, and comprehensive evaluations. You need to provide training to your supervisors to ensure there is continuity in the evaluation process. You owe this to the personnel in your organization.
There is nothing more frustrating to your personnel than to see poor performance go unaddressed or superior performance go unrecognized. The evaluation process can have a profound effect on the moral of your organization, both in a significantly positive or negative way. Providing continuity in the evaluation process will lead to greater credibility for you, your supervisors, and your organization.