Posted: 2:05 am EDT
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We have originally written about the 360 degree feedback in 2008 as it started gaining popularity within the State Department. (see Sexing up the 360-Degree Feedback, Revisited). We thought then, and we still think now, that using the 360° feedback for evaluative purposes, (instead of using it primarily for development), especially when a candidate’s next job is on the line can easily transform this useful learning tool into an inflated, useless material with real consequences for operational effectiveness. We understand from comments received this past July, that this is being used as a developmental tool by Consular Affairs and the Leadership and Management School at FSI (see a couple of feedback), but those are, in all likelihood, the two exceptions. The 360 degree feedback is primarily used as an assignments or placement tool.
In 2013, the Marine Corps Times reported that the Pentagon was expanding its use of “360-degree” reviews for senior officers, but legal concerns may limit their inclusion in any formal promotion or command screening process:
Even if there is interest among the brass to formalize the process, there may be big legal hurdles to expanding the 360-review process beyond a strictly confidential tool for self-awareness.
Officers have valid concerns about anonymous and unverified criticisms seeping into the official process for doling out promotions, command assignments or seats at prestigious schools.
If officers feel their career was damaged by a harsh 360-degree review, they might insist on knowing precisely who lodged the criticisms in order to rebut them. And if the confidentiality is questioned, then the whole endeavor ceases to have much value.
From a legal standpoint, that officer might have a right to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out who submitted that confidential review.
“The more that’s at stake … the more difficult it will be to maintain the anonymity,” the senior official said. “And, of course, if you don’t maintain the confidentiality, then you have a very different product,” because peers and subordinates will be far less likely to offer candid criticism.
In April 2015, an official Pentagon study concludes that the “360-degree reviews” probably should not be used as a part of the formal military evaluation and promotion process. Below via the Military Times:
[T]he new report cites a long list of legal, cultural and practical concerns that would prevent this type of review’s widespread use in determining who gets selected for promotions, command assignments or slots at prestigious schools.
In 2013, Congress ordered the Defense Department to do a thorough assessment of whether and how 360-degree reviews should be used in the military personnel system.
Rand researchers concluded that the tools should be limited to personnel development programs, which means some troops are subject to 360-degree reviews but the results are provided only to the individual for his or her own benefit, and are not included in any official personnel file.
In the September issue of the Foreign Service Journal, consular-coned officer, William Bent, currently serving at the US Embassy in Barbados pens a Speaking Out piece on the need for the State Department to reevaluate its use of the 360-degree reviews.
Mr. Bent spells out the following concerns as the 360 feedback continue to be used as a placement tool by “assignment decision-makers”:
♨︎ || The reviews are seldom transparent. In current practice, the assessed employee usually has no idea what feedback the deciding official has received, and an employee receiving any negative feedback is rarely, if ever, contacted to discuss the issues raised. This creates the potential for unsubstantiated criticism that can unfairly undermine an employee’s chance for advancement. One does not have to assume deliberate career sabotage here: as a manager, one sometimes has to make unpopular decisions that years later still rankle former subordinates who, because of inexperience, may not have had the full picture.
The Bureau of Consular Affair’s recent development of the Consular Bidder Assessment Tool addresses the issue of transparency by allowing the assessed employee to see the anonymous feedback statements. But the employee is denied the opportunity for a timely discussion of the results (bidders are instructed not to attempt to discuss results until after bidding season is over). This is a surprising approach from the bureau that brought us the innovative CLI.
The DCM/principal officer 360-degree reviews are neither transparent, nor do they provide any opportunity for assessed employees to obtain feedback.
♨︎ || The reviews have little value because the assessed employee chooses the assessor. On the whole, most peers and subordinates resist being frank and candid in their reviews. Having the assessed employee pick his or her own assessors emphasizes this tendency, skewing the results.
It also replicates the EER problem: when everyone walks on water, the decision-makers try to read between the lines, looking for any chinks in an individual’s armor. Paradoxically, this feeds into the concerns discussed above, since any negative review raises bells and whistles and is given extra weight.
♨︎ || Use of 360-degree reviews for purposes other than development remains controversial among human resource experts. Using them to determine assignments is akin to using them as performance appraisals, which some human resource experts see as detrimental to an organization because of its negative effect on personal growth. When the results are not shared in a transparent way, trust is undermined.
♨︎ || The State Department’s use of 360s in determining assignments was not adequately studied prior to implementation. This practice appears to have been implemented on an ad hoc basis several years ago, with a few bureaus using email as a platform to receive input. The use of 360s has now proliferated, with all bureaus involved in the assignment process utilizing them to make decisions.
Yet there seems to have been no prior centralized review of the ramifications of broad use of the tool on the Foreign Service workforce. The use of SharePoint and other technologies to gather the results also raises confidentiality questions (some 360s have been posted—I assume accidentally—on the State Department’s intranet site).
♨︎ || Some recipients of the results may lack the training and expertise to interpret them effectively. There is a reason there are books and articles written by human resource academics and specialists on how to effectively implement and utilize the 360-degree review process. Has the State Department trained officials using the results in human resource management or the 360-degree review process? Do these officials have goals beyond filling the position in question (e.g., the further career development of an employee)?
Moreover, what role has the Bureau of Human Resources—the one bureau theoretically best placed to manage this process—played in implementing the 360 review requirements? Are career development officers discussing the results of 360s with clients to improve the employee’s chances of strengthening skills?
♨︎ || The annual deluge of 360s creates significant time and resource issues. Let’s face it, the 360 process has become a major time suck for everyone involved, with email inboxes inundated each summer with requests for 360-degree reviews. Although we all have a responsibility to assist our colleagues and the organization as a whole by diligently filling out the reviews, the sheer volume of requests can be overwhelming. This could result in less comprehensive responses that don’t give a full portrait of the assessed employee.
Mr. Bent provides four recommendations including, the immediate suspension of “the use of 360s in the Foreign Service assignment process pending the completion of a study, conducted by an outside consultant, on the effectiveness of their use.”
If the Pentagon’s decision not to jump into the 360 degree bandwagon is not enough to give the State Department pause in its use of the 360 as part of the employes’ assignment process, then perhaps what should give them pause is the potential for privacy and FOIA litigation. 360 results posted online, hello?
We’ve located the Pentagon 360 study conducted by the Rand Corporation. In one part, it quotes a participant of its study saying, “Conventional wisdom in regards to 360-degree assessments from experts and researchers is that the most effective use of 360 assessments is to enhance professional, individual development. Once you change the purpose or intent of a 360 from development to evaluation, you affect the willingness of raters to provide candid or unfettered feedback.” That’s probably the most apt comment when it comes to the 360 degree feedback.
Read Rand’s 360-Degree Assessments: Are They the Right Tool for the U.S. Military? (pdf).