The Science of Writing Performance Evaluations

It's that time of year again. My former colleagues in the U.S. Foreign Service all dread the approach of April, when the twin evils of taxes and performance evaluations come together. Everything they have accomplished must be described, rated, and reviewed in a written document that addresses 6 "precepts" and 31 specific skills, which will be used as the primary basis for determining promotion. Officers are told that they should appear to walk on water, so they begin to write in inflated, nonspecific language. It's a nightmare.

There are dozens of webinars and seminars and cables and emails and secret pdf's offering pages upon pages of advice. All of it comes down to this: When it comes to writing about work performance, science is more important than art. 

Like any written evaluation, the EER is just qualitative data. Too many people get caught up in trying to tell a beautiful story about themselves, which too few of them do well. It's unnecessary. Panels must be able to see past the storytelling to understand exactly what you accomplished and which precepts that displays. The surface of the writing is easy for others to fix, but the substance has to come from you. 

In that spirit, here are my best tips for writers of performance evaluations:

* Be strategic. Before you start writing, decide what overall impression you want readers to have of you. It should go beyond adjectives: instead of "amazing" and "indispensable," think "persuasive communicator" and "clearheaded during crises." (Unfortunately, "The best ever at every single thing" is not an option!)

Be selective. Pick no more than three major issues to cover in any of the statements. It's up to you to sort through the full set of data from your yearish of performance and communicate just the points the panel needs to see. They don't have the time or patience to do it for you.

* Be matter-of-fact. Never describe yourself using adjectives or adverbs. Be neither humble nor arrogant - take your opinion of yourself out of the equation entirely and focus on the facts. 

* Be specific. Give your rater and reviewer specific examples that demonstrate those traits, like "persuaded the host country government to cooperate on information-sharing" and "provided clear guidance to staff in handling counterparts during media frenzy over surveillance program." Offer concrete details that help your readers understand why what you did mattered.

* Be aware. Your readers do not know the context of your work, so you must provide it. Numbers should always be presented in reference to something else. Which is worse, "3/4 of our staff fell ill" or "3 out of 4 officers in our section fell ill during the Vice President's visit"? 

* Be thoughtful. Give your reviewer the examples that are easiest to communicate and save the hardest ones for yourself. Ensure that all six precepts are covered, with special attention to prior areas for improvement.

* Be kind to the panel. Make it as easy as possible for your readers to understand: no jargon, few abbreviations, not even the expectation that they've been listening to NPR all year. It should be so clear what you did and how it added value that they're convinced you are an outstanding desk officer even if they still refer to that country currently in crisis as "The" Ukraine.

* Let it breathe. Leave white space, especially around the words and phrases you most want the panel to notice. If an example is particularly salient, give it center stage. Don't crowd it out with factoids that do little to advance your overall cause. 

And when all else fails, just remember: This is science. It's okay to let the data lead the way. 

Check out my companion post, "The Art of Writing Performance Evaluations," for more on how to use language to communicate data effectively. 

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The EER process leaves plenty of good officers behind while allowing poor performers who game the system to excel. I hate it. That's why I got good at it (I was tenured & promoted at first eligibility and have helped several others secure well-deserved promotions). That's also why, even after separating from the Foreign Service, I remain committed to helping people get through the process.

I offer one-on-one support selectively and mostly by referral. If you've stumbled upon this page and would like to know more about employing me to help with your EER, please use the contact form to schedule a 20-minute consultation.