Thursday, January 19, 2006

Column 67 - Open Reviews

As Mark Twain famously said, when the Nevada Legislature sits, no one is safe.

In the last session, our legislators passed a new law stating that performance reviews conducted by public bodies must be done in open meetings. Locally this means that when the IVGID Board of Trustees conducts Executive Director Bill Horn’s performance reviews, they must do so in an open meeting before the public. At last week’s IVGID Board meeting they did this for Bill’s half-year interim review, and in June they will do it again for his annual review.

Now I’m all for open meetings, and overall I think the Open Meeting Law serves an important public function. There is some awkwardness to it, like when three or more Trustees happen to be in attendance at a function, they have to avoid talking about District matters, but that’s not too bad and the benefits of the law have, heretofore, outweighed such minor inconveniences.

But this new provision is just foolishness. The purpose of a review is to give candid feedback to an employee about their performance so that areas of strength can be built on and areas of weakness improved. Candor requires privacy so that both the reviewer and reviewee can be fully open and honest – a review is a dialogue, not a broadcast, and dialogue about sensitive matters is difficult if not impossible in front of an audience.

My regard for Bill Horn is well-known, and for the most part I think well of this Board. It was painful to sit in the meeting and watch them go through this process. Even though the review was very positive, it was clearly uncomfortable for both the Board and for Bill. And what if it had been less positive? The Board would have been faced with a choice between giving low scores without feedback or giving feedback that could easily be taken out of context and used by people who for whatever reason wanted to gain public leverage against the Executive Director.

In my work with businesses I design, administer, and debrief feedback systems such as 360 reviews, and I have had occasion to counsel both reviewers and reviewees at high organizational levels, particularly when the reviews were likely to be difficult or ill-received. One of the sacred tenets of good human resource policy is “praise in public, criticize in private” so that people have the room to learn, defensiveness is minimized, and people’s dignity is protected. Our legislators, and as far as I know there is not an HR professional among them, have decided that this long-established and important practice does not apply to public employees. And, by the way, not all public employees, just the top rank – those whose reviews are done by public bodies. You see, everyone else in IVGID gets their reviews from their supervisor or manager. Only the Executive Director is reviewed by the Board in front of the public and the people he manages. Insane.

We ask a lot of those who choose to dedicate their lives to public service. They make far less money than they would in the private sector, their work is by its nature much more in the public eye, and far too many people think the fact that these folks are paid with tax dollars means that anyone in the public is entitled to take a shot at them for any reason. But it is beyond the pale when we also require them to undergo what should be a private and personal dialogue about their performance in public.

Some public bodies in the state have decided to forego doing performance reviews rather than subjecting their key people to this indignity – the IVGID Board of Trustees should consider this as a possible course of action until this ill-advised legislation is reversed.

As a Human Resource professional I take it personally when a group of people who don’t, as far as I can tell, know the first thing about good HR practice decide for reasons at which I can only guess to make rules that insult the dignity and privacy of good people. I will be contacting the Nevada chapter of the Society for HR Management and the legislature to do all I can to get this legislation taken off the books. I invite you to contact our legislators if you feel the same..

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