Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Reconsidering the Black-White Disparity in Federal Performance Ratings

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Reconsidering the Black-White Disparity in Federal Performance Ratings

Article excerpt

Federal officials have denounced the racial disparities in federal employee performance ratings, attributing those disparities to rater racial bias. While such bias is regrettably possible, research offers no empirical evidence of significant federal rater bias, nor compelling theoretical support for that attribution. This paper applies research on rater-ratee "race effects" and on Organizational Delinquency Behaviors in considering the reported disparities. Finally, the paper suggests policy responses based on that recent research.

The federal service is only one of the government workforces faced with criticism about allegedly race-biased ratings disparities. This paper aims at helping government agencies understand the factors other than racial bias which can legitimately account for such disparities. Understanding those factors can help guide internal investigations of discrimination charges regarding performance ratings, and assist in responding to internal and public criticism. As I will show below, critics of race disparities in agencies' performance ratings may have been misled by the myth that research studies reveal that White raters are usually biased against Black ratees, a myth lent credence by Human Resources textbooks. This paper aims at refuting and dispelling that myth, in part to arm agencies against deluded critics, and in part to shift the focus of remedial efforts--if needed--to the factors actually associated with ratings disparities.

Defining the Problem

Claims of rater racial bias in the federal service are particularly troubling since regulations tie performance ratings to tangible benefits including pay, promotions, cash awards, and adjusted seniority (vital to surviving force reductions). Asch (1) found that in the Defense Department, which employs 40% of the civil service, "Higher-quality personnel are generally paid more and are promoted faster than lower-quality personnel, regardless of which measure of quality is used and despite the drawbacks of the measure. Specifically, those who receive better ratings from their supervisors are found to earn more and be promoted faster."

Also, the federal service is unusually race diverse, with Black employment in almost every agency already greatly exceeding the agency's Relevant Civilian Labor Force, and growing. (2) If raters actually exhibited anti-Black bias, it would cause disproportional harm in a racially disproportional workforce.

Despite the reported underutilization of Whites in federal service, they are a numerical majority of employees and supervisors. Since most Black federal ratees are rated by non-Black superiors, empirical evidence of rater racial bias should compel tailored remedial efforts.

The Magnitude of the Ratings Disparity

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) reported with alarm federal service performance ratings disparities by race in the mid-1990s. Although now over a decade old, those reports remain the most recent official word on alleged racial disparities, remain among OPM's references for its current diversity guidelines, and--according to MSPB's website (3)--"remain among our most requested reports, despite the time that has passed, which suggests that the topic of fair treatment for all remains a concern to our audience." MSPB's report is frequently cited in other research, as recently as June 2008. (4)

OPM's 1995 report on discharge disparities by race found a significant negative correlation between race and performance rating. (5) An MSPB study (6) revealed average ratings in March 1995:

MSPB commented on its table:

While an initial reaction to the differences shown in [this] table might be that minorities are not performing as well as non-minorities, other studies suggest that this may be an erroneous conclusion.

In fact, extensive research has been done in the area of performance appraisals. …

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