They say you shouldn’t post anything bad about a previous employer; a potential employer might see it and think you’re unprofessional. Sensible advice. Generally I have nothing to complain about, but there’s one thing in the Civil Service I can’t walk away from without having a tiny dig: performance management.
The brief was simple: a group of sadists were locked in a room for six weeks and told to come up with a system for separating the wheat from the chaff; a process to identify the weak and drive them out. It had to be a water-tight system, impossible to challenge – documented, evidence based and wasting no more than £6 billion of taxpayers’ money a year.
No one could have predicted how far these sadists would go and how thoroughly they would get away with it. The results were staggering. They came up with a process to push every civil servant to, and in some cases well beyond, breaking point.
They took the idea of a simple, yearly appraisal – where manager and subordinate discuss achievements, areas for improvement, career development and aspirations for the future – and turned it into a monstrous, punishing trial, guaranteed to instill fear and panic in the hearts of even the most devoted employees.
It starts with being forced to read thousands of pages of paperwork. Some are actual paper files and some are in different formats, scattered widely across the intranet. If you have anything of value, you can use it to bribe a content manager to give you clues as to where to find them.
Then there’s the trauma of the two-day training course. Not the sort of course where you can sit at the back and fall asleep. It’s interactive with role play, group exercises, the works. (When I say the works, that doesn’t include refreshments. You can’t even get a cup of tea or a glass of water.)
Then comes the self assessment. Except it’s not a self assessment because you can’t comment on your own performance unless it’s backed up by a colleague who’s at least four grades above you. Do these colleagues have time to give you their testimonials? Of course not! Once you’ve been through it a few times you learn to ghost write quotes for them to approve. After all, they despise the process as much as you do and welcome any way of easing the pressure.
Then comes your manager’s summary. You need to schedule in at least an hour of your day, every day, for sucking up to your manager with coffee and flattery. They’re the only one who might be able to help you when things turn nasty. The worst bit is yet to come.
The moderation meeting. This is a vile, kangaroo court where your good name is dragged through the mud, stamped on and fed to the pigeons. But you’re not invited to defend yourself and this is when you realise your self assessment was just a cruel trick to make you think you’re involved in the process. The only rule is that there are no rules. Honesty, fairness and humanity have no place in the moderation meeting. The goal is to crucify your enemies by any means necessary, and believe me we’re all enemies at this point.
You might wonder what motivates seemingly ordinary people to throw their integrity out of the window and lie, betray, bully, and intimidate their colleagues in such as shameful manor. It comes down to a grid and a graph. Every member of the team is placed somewhere on the judgment grid. Everyone wants to be in the top right; no one wants to be in the bottom left. From the grid comes the graph of condemnation. The graph must be a horizontal line, with evenly spaced points, from the bottom left to the top right. If it sounds complicated and unnecessary that’s because it is.
The object of the game is quite simple:
- The more people who are in the top right, the less chance you, and the people you manage, have of getting there. Knock them off!
- If someone you manage is anywhere near the bottom left, it will reflect on you. They’ll drag you down. Shove them up!
- You must fight and claw your way to the top right, dragging anyone you line manage with you and elbowing anyone who you don’t manage in the face until they crash to the bottom.
If you think most people refuse to play the game, preferring to defy the system and face the consequences, you’re wrong. Everyone gets sucked in.
I left the Civil Service in March this year and it’s taken me this long to find the strength to talk about performance management. I’m not saying don’t become a civil servant, I learnt so much and met some amazing people, but be warned. I heard a rumour that the Hunger Games and the Maze Runner trilogies were inspired by tales from civil servants who survived the process, and I believe it.