The State Department Needs to Reevaluate Its Use of 360-Degree Reviews

Speaking Out


If used correctly, 360-degree reviews can be a valuable tool for an organization seeking to develop its workforce and foster a culture of leadership and management excellence. The increasing use of 360s in organizations, including the State Department, stems from the recognition that a performance appraisal alone does not give a full picture of an employee’s effectiveness and potential.

As Richard Lepsinger and Antoinette Lucia stated in their 1997 book, The Art and Science of 360-Degree Feedback: “Neither upward nor downward feedback includes the perspectives of a significant population—colleagues, peers, members of project teams, other senior managers and customers—who depend on and are affected by the behavior of a given manager. These people are also in a position to observe a wide range of behaviors that might not be apparent to a direct supervisor or a direct report. Gathering information from many different people provides a complete portrait of behavior on the job.”

This probably explains why the various bureaus in the State Department are relying more and more on 360s in the assignment process. Given the criticisms often lobbed at the Foreign Service Employee Evaluation Review, it is understandable that their use has increased in the department. In a system where some claim EERs inflate accomplishments to the point where every Foreign Service officer “walks on water,” it is natural that those responsible for filling Foreign Service positions would seek a more reliable method of screening bidders.

Assignment decision-makers obviously want to find the most qualified person for the position, particularly when it involves significant leadership and managerial responsibilities, such as a deputy chief of mission job or the supervisor of a large consular operation.

Worthy as these intentions may be, the department’s current use of the 360-degree review process to determine assignments is misguided and detrimental to the long-term health of the Foreign Service.

A Development Tool

The true value of the 360-degree review—and its most common use by far in the private sector—is as a development tool. When an employee receives constructive feedback—negative as well as positive—from supervisors, peers and subordinates, true career development can begin if the individual can translate this feedback into a plan of action to grow.

Two examples of the State Department’s use of the 360 are in line with this approach to human resource development: the Foreign Service Institute’s use of the 360 in its leadership and management training classes and the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ use of the 360 in its annual Consular Leadership Indicator survey. CA’s CLI offers every consular supervisor the opportunity to, on a voluntary basis, solicit feedback from subordinates via an online tool that then aggregates the results and provides a scorecard to the manager.

In both examples, the results are not the end point, but rather constitute the first step in a process of self-reflection and, hopefully, growth as a leader and manager. Indeed, the literature on 360s makes it very clear that discussion of the results is a key component of the process, the purpose of which is to develop leaders.

Unfortunately, other than these two examples, the department’s use of 360s is not for developmental purposes, but for what amounts to hiring decisions.

The department’s current use of the 360-degree review process to determine assignments is misguided and detrimental to the long-term health of the Foreign Service.

Hiring Decisions: The Concern

Use of the 360-degree review for hiring decisions that can make or break a career is of concern for the following reasons:

■ 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.

In its book Maximizing the Value of 360-Degree Feedback, the Center for Creative Leadership explained: “Conditions for personal growth frequently can be at odds in an organizational environment where there are concerns over issues of trust, candor and openness of communication. In such a situation, it is not surprising that when 360-degree feedback is used as part of performance appraisal, the organization risks losing the value of individual and organizational development because the conditions necessary for change are taken away.”

■ 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).

Use of 360-degree reviews for purposes other than development remains controversial among human resource experts.

■ 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.

Put 360s into Perspective

The State Department continues to make great strides in the area of leadership and management development. The Bureau of Consular Affairs’ pioneering work has spread to several other bureaus, and the past year also witnessed the Secretary of State’s increased focus on fostering a culture of leadership and managerial excellence throughout the department. Certainly 360s can play a significant role in this process, but the focus must be on career development.

The focus on development does not preclude the use of 360s for assignments, but the State Department should explore the following recommendations:

• Immediately suspend 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.

• Coordinate any decision on the use of 360-degree reviews for assignments with the Director General, and ensure that the Bureau of Human Resources directs the implementation. As the professional association and bargaining unit of the Foreign Service, the American Foreign Service Association should also have input into this process.

• Ensure that any plan to utilize 360-degree reviews in the assignment process is transparent. Members of the Foreign Service should know what is being said about them, even if the comments remain anonymous.

• Tie the 360s, even if used for assignments, to career development. CDOs should discuss the results with clients and establish voluntary individual development plans involving additional training and coaching.

All of us are ultimately responsible for our careers. But by adopting the above recommendations, the State Department could take a giant leap forward in fostering a supportive climate where personal growth and advancement are more attainable.

William Bent, a consular-coned officer serving in Bridgetown, Barbados, is a former member of the Foreign Service Journal Editorial Board and the AFSA Governing Board. Bent joined the Foreign Service in 1992 and has served in Prague, Kingston, Santo Domingo, Kabul and several domestic assignments. He recently graduated from the National War College.