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New rules aimed at stopping EPR inflation

Feb. 4, 2013 - 08:34AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 4, 2013 - 08:34AM  |  
Failing a PT test automatically keeps airmen from getting a 5 on their EPR, based on new regulations signed in January.
Failing a PT test automatically keeps airmen from getting a 5 on their EPR, based on new regulations signed in January. (Air Force)
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Say goodbye to automatic 5s on your EPR.

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Say goodbye to automatic 5s on your EPR.

In the first major overhaul of the instruction on enlisted and officer evaluations since 2000, the guidance is clear: Any airman who receives a referral report cannot receive the top score of 5 on his enlisted performance report.

"The intent of this policy change was to more consistently hold airmen accountable for failing to meet minimum standards," said Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, director of force management policy at the Pentagon. "An airman cannot fail to meet minimum standards and be truly among the best. We want the record to be consistent with the airman's performance for that period."

Referrals are given for a range of problems, from failing to meet physical fitness standards to substandard job performance to disciplinary action. But in the past, nearly all airmen received a 5 on their evals, regardless of whether they were outstanding or mediocre — a pattern Air Force leaders are trying to break in the new, 285-page instruction.

As part of the update, if you get a referral report, the highest assessment you can get on your EPR is a 4, said Will Brown of the Air Force Personnel Center.

The instruction, AFI 36-2406, does not change the eval form. But the changes seek to make clear that airmen who receive referrals are not up to the standards of a 5, said Brown, chief of Air Force evaluation and recognition programs. The instruction also defines each performance rating, from 1 to 5.

The change will likely be celebrated by airmen who have long complained that the high percentage of airmen receiving 5s on the EPR has diluted its value.

Slow change

Then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy called for more honest assessments in 2009, but the percentage of airmen who received 5s only dropped from 85.3 percent in fiscal 2009 to 82.9 percent in fiscal 2011.

In fiscal 2012, 182,231 airmen, or 83 percent, scored a 5 on their EPR, said Air Force Personnel Center spokesman Mike Dickerson. During that time period, 10,306 referrals were issued, but the Air Force does not track how many of those with referrals received a 5.

Inflated EPRs come up each time airmen are asked what they think leaders should change. The subject came up again last month, when Air Force Times asked readers what they want the chief master sergeant of the Air Force to fix.

Supervisors are hamstrung when they try to provide airmen with honest feedback, said a lieutenant colonel based in Osan, South Korea.

"When it goes up the chain of command for review, the supervisor a lot of times is compelled to change the rating because the chain of command doesn't want to think that they've got anyone who's less than a stellar performer," he said.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody signaled that times are changing, telling airmen at his Jan. 24 transition ceremony they need to hold each other "more accountable for measuring up to the high standards that we demand of every airman."

To combat EPR inflation, the Air Force is developing a more detailed form that supervisors will use to evaluate airmen, Roy told Air Force Times.

The "Comprehensive Airman Assessment" is being reviewed by service legal officials, Roy said in a Jan. 16 interview. To make sure airmen are getting honest feedback, the form would be reviewed by every rater's supervisor.

"I've got to be able to rate you on being a supervisor," Roy said. "How do I do that if I can't even look at your product?"

It hurts the entire Air Force when supervisors give all airmen 5s on their EPRs, Roy said.

"It doesn't help that person who needs to grow if you tell him everything's fine, and it doesn't help that person who is your absolute best performer when they are getting the absolute same rating as somebody who needs some improvement," Roy said.

Referral backlash

The latest version of the Air Force instruction for officer and enlisted evaluations mandates the perfect 5 be reserved for enlisted airmen who are "truly among the best."

"To earn this rating, the fitness assessment must be marked either ‘Meet' or ‘Exempt,' and the report must not be a referral," the instruction says. "If the report is a referral, the overall assessment must not be ‘Truly Among the Best' (5)."

A referral report is generated when airmen score a "Poor" or "Needs Improvement" on at least one enlisted personnel report's rated categories or when they use drugs, go AWOL, get an Article 15 or are convicted by a court-martial.

The Air Force does not track how many airmen who received a referral were able to score a 5 on their EPRs because the service's personnel data system stops recording referrals as soon as you get a "good" EPR assessment, Brown said.

Another change in the instruction decreases the amount of time that enlisted airmen have to submit a rebuttal to a referral from 10 days to three. That is consistent with how many days airmen have to contest an Article 15 or other disciplinary actions, Brown said.

Airmen who receive a lower EPR score because of a referral report shouldn't be surprised if they don't get promoted.

"The EPR is a performance assessment, and airmen who have negative factors in their performance assessment should expect to be considered for promotion behind airmen who do not," Cody said in an email.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is looking to get smaller amid shrinking defense budgets. The service plans to cut 3,340 active-duty airmen, 1,000 airmen from the Air National Guard and 520 from the Reserve this fiscal year.

The change to AFI 36-2406 requiring a rating lower than 5 for a referral report, however, "has been coming for a long time and was not implemented for force management reasons," Grosso said.

But the crackdown on automatic 5s gives the Air Force a better idea of who it needs to separate, said retired Chief Master Sgt. Steph Page.

Getting a referral report can be the "kiss of death" for an airman's career because the process of determining how it will affect an airman's overall EPR score is so subjective, said Page, who retired in 2009 after 30 years of service.

For example, if an airman is arrested for drunken driving, his EPR score can vary depending on who the rater is, he said.

"I, as a rater, can write the guy a 4, mark him all the way over to the left, and the rater's rater can come in behind me and say, ‘No, I think it's a 3,' and you have to go with what the rater's rater says," he said. "It's a jacked-up system; there's no doubt about it."

Page agrees with the Air Force's move that prevents airmen who receive a referral report from getting top ratings on their EPRs because airmen who need to improve don't deserve a 5.

"We're human, we make mistakes, but the most important thing I want is if I make a mistake, I want to know what the lesson is from it," he said. "Teach me — teach me how to be better."

Rather than being a career killer, if an airman gets a referral report, his EPR score should depend on his ability to rehabilitate, Page said.

"Article 15s, letter of counseling, letters of reprimand, all of these things are designed — not so much for punishment — but they're designed to rehabilitate the member, to change a course of action," he said.

Page admits he got into trouble several times during his career, even as a command chief.

"In the old days, if you didn't have an Article 15, you weren't learning,"' he said. "It was almost like a rite of passage."

Other changes

The crackdown on referrals is one of the many changes to officer and enlisted evaluations that have kicked in under the updated instruction, which folds all EPR and OPR guidance into one instruction.

Among the others:

• A requirement that all airmen E-7 and above report any convictions they've received in either civilian or military courts to their first-line supervisors. That includes any pleas of guilty or no contest.

The requirement for E-7s and above to self-report comes from a law passed in 2008.

"We were instructed as a department to include that information [in] the next revision of our performance evaluations," Brown said.

• Details on how airmen will be evaluated while deployed.

Deployed airmen receive a letter of evaluation or an extended deployment enlisted or officer performance report, depending on how long their deployment is.

For airmen not serving as commanders, letters of evaluations "will not be a matter of record." Rather, they will be used to help raters at an airman's home station prepare an airman's next evaluation, the instruction says.

"When the entire unit deploys to the same location, and/or the member's home station rater is also the deployed rater, the LOE is not required," the instruction says. "The member's performance can be documented in the member's next performance evaluation."

Meanwhile, officers from lieutenant to colonel who serve as commander for 45 days or more will receive a formal letter of evaluation, the instruction says.

Those officers and enlisted airmen who deploy for a year to fill an extended development requirement receive extended-duty OPRs and EPRs. The instruction spells out when they will be rated by someone deployed or back at their home station.

If officers are selected to leave the Air Force by a force-shaping board, they will return no later than 30 days before their date of separation, unless they are still needed in theater, the instruction says.

The updated instruction also incorporates the procedures for correcting officer and enlisted evaluation reports, which had been in a separate instruction.

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