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360-degree reviews may never be part of formal evals

Oct. 30, 2013 - 07:30PM   |  
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has championed '360-degree' reviews as a way to identify and weed out 'toxic leaders,' but military legal experts have concerns about making them part of an officer's formal personnel record. (Colin Kelly / Staff)

The Pentagon is rapidly expanding its use of '360-degree' reviews for senior officers, but legal concerns may limit their inclusion in any formal promotion or command screening process.

The Pentagon is rapidly expanding its use of '360-degree' reviews for senior officers, but legal concerns may limit their inclusion in any formal promotion or command screening process.

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The Pentagon is rapidly expanding its use of “360-degree” reviews for senior officers, but legal concerns may limit their inclusion in any formal promotion or command screening process.

The controversial evaluation tools that include input from peers and subordinates as well as supervisors were mandated by the Pentagon’s top brass earlier this year, particularly Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was driven in part by concerns about so-called “toxic leaders” and a spate of senior-level misconduct.

When the forcewide requirement was announced, some officers feared that disgruntled subordinates could potentially derail promising careers with criticism offered under a veil of anonymity if the feedback was made a formal aspect of their personnel records.

But that is not likely to happen anytime soon, senior officials say. The military’s version will be limited to general and flag officers, and few people beyond the officer under review will ever see the final results. The process is comparable to similar 360-degree, or “multirater,” reviews in the private sector.

“For right now, nobody is using this as part of the formal system of performance evaluation,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Stough, vice director for the Joint Staff’s force development division. “At first, at least initially, you want it to be a self-development tool.”

Even if there is interest among the brass to formalize the process, there may be big legal hurdles to expanding the 360-review process beyond a strictly confidential tool for self-awareness.

No chance to rebut?

Officers have valid concerns about anonymous and unverified criticisms seeping into the official process for doling out promotions, command assignments or seats at prestigious schools.

If officers feel their career was damaged by a harsh 360-degree review, they might insist on knowing precisely who lodged the criticisms in order to rebut them. And if the confidentiality is questioned, then the whole endeavor ceases to have much value.

“There is a difference when it counts for something beyond personal development,” said one senior military official familiar with the reviews.

“The concern is that if you’re passed over for promotion … and you go and ask why, and you find out there are three officers who say, ‘This guy steals money,’ or, ‘This officer commits waste, fraud and abuse on a regular basis,’ … you should have the right to say ‘Who said that? and why are they saying that?’ ”

From a legal standpoint, that officer might have a right to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out who submitted that confidential review.

“The more that’s at stake … the more difficult it will be to maintain the anonymity,” the senior official said. “And, of course, if you don’t maintain the confidentiality, then you have a very different product,” because peers and subordinates will be far less likely to offer candid criticism.

The 360-degree assessments are one component of the renewed focus on military professionalism that has been a central issue for Dempsey.

Some officers taking the reviews are learning that criticism is inevitable in some leadership positions. “If you don’t get some feedback that is negative, then you’re probably not doing your job, you’re probably not making a difference,” Stough said.

The services are in various stages of ramping up efforts to implement 360-degrees.

■ The Army is using the reviews aggressively, with senior officers as well as junior officers and senior noncommissioned officers undergoing the “multisource assessment and feedback” over the past few years.

■ The Navy is ahead of the other services, having experimented with these assessments for about a decade.

All admirals get them as part of their training, and prospective commanders and executive officers complete the reviews at Command Leadership School.

In addition, surface warfare ensigns and department heads get similar evaluations during Surface Warfare Officers School.

■ The Air Force had little prior experience with 360-degree reviews, but during the past six months has developed a prototype” review and encouraged some generals to begin taking them.

At press time, Marine Corps officials had not responded to a request for comment.

Differences are emerging in how peers and subordinates are selected to provide feedback.

In some cases, including the Army, the officer under review can select those individuals. In other cases, for example in the Joint Staff version, general and flag officers can log on and submit reviews for any other flag or general officer in a joint billet.

At this point, none of the services plans to include the results in formal personnel files. But that doesn’t mean the results will always be confidential.

The Army has experimented with providing the results to the officer’s chain of command to help ensure officers focus on improving in areas identified in the reviews as problems or weaknesses.

The Navy discloses the results to the officer under review as well as a “coach” or mentor who is assigned to guide officer through the review process and interpreting the final product, a Navy official said.

And the Joint Staff is considering a policy that would give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs access to the 360-degree reviews for everyone on his staff.

“My thought would be that probably the chairman should be able to see them all,” Stough said.

Concerns for the future

Some experts say it will be hard to restrict disclosure over time.

“It will stay in the back channels for several years and then someone will come forward and say ‘Why aren’t we using this upfront as opposed to the back channels?’ ” said Mark Edwards, a Naval Academy graduate and former management consultant who wrote the book “360-degree Feedback.”

“Every senior officer I’ve known in the military wants to promote the best senior officers to follow,” Edwards said. “In order to do that, they need the best information they can get. And they will go to great lengths to get that information.”

But criticism of the concept among military legal officials may well act as the ultimate check on its expansion in the military leadership culture, said Tracy Maylett, a consultant who has helped several military commands implement versions of 360-degree reviews through his firm, Decisionwise.

“The legal reps have the power to stop this,” Maylett said. “I don’t necessarily think their points are valid or accurate, but if the legal advisers say, ‘Don’t do this,’ it won’t happen.”

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