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Cody: 18-month overhaul starts with new feedback form

Jun. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody says the new enlisted performance report will be out in six months.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody says the new enlisted performance report will be out in six months. (Samuel King Jr./Air Force)
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Get ready for some awkward conversations with your supervisor.

Get ready for some awkward conversations with your supervisor.

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Get ready for some awkward conversations with your supervisor.

The Air Force’s new feedback form, which goes into effect July 1, will contain several questions that get into personal — sometimes uncomfortable — territory, such as airmen’s finances, relationships and stressors. After the feedback form is rolled out, all airmen will have their first feedback session at some point over the following months.

But some airmen think it’s going too far.

The form, which is called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment and will have versions for officers, senior noncommissioned officers and other enlisted airmen, is intended to improve communication between supervisors and their airmen. The Air Force hopes it will allow supervisors to start a conversation with airmen about problems they may be facing that could hurt their performance and their careers, and will help airmen find ways to solve those problems.

For example, the self-assessment portion of the form asks airmen whether they understand the importance of budgeting and financially living within their means. And it asks whether they understand the importance of setting aside quality time to be with family and friends. Another portion, called “Knowing Your Airman,” requires supervisors to ask airmen if they have stressors in their lives, how they plan to reduce them, and how the Air Force can help. As part of that section, supervisors will talk to airmen about their goals and dreams, and help them find a mentor, as well as to become a mentor to other airmen.

The Airman Comprehensive Assessment will pave the way for a massive overhaul of the entire enlisted evaluation system over the next year and a half.

Now that the feedback form is out, in roughly six months, the Air Force will start rolling out new Enlisted Performance Reports for all enlisted airmen, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said in a June 11 interview. Chief master sergeants will get the new EPR first early next year, he said, and use will move down the ranks throughout 2015.

Chiefs will be the first to be evaluated for promotion under the new EPR in October 2015.

“We’re going to do it in stages,” Cody said. “We’re going to do it by ranks. That way, we can make adjustments, like anything as big as this is. We’re going to learn some things as we go to execute them over the next six months, while we’re inculcating the new feedback form. We want that to get a good hold, get our airmen comfortable with it, making sure that we’re doing that the right way before we then start to roll out the new EPRs.”

In a January video, Cody said the Air Force is considering dropping numerical performance ratings as part of the EPR overhaul. Cody has acknowledged widespread criticism that the current EPR’s ratings are often inflated. Roughly 80 percent of enlisted airmen receive the top score of 5, Cody said — a practice known among airmen as “firewall 5s” — which renders the rating system effectively useless.

Airmen instead might be evaluated based on written summaries — or “word pictures” — of their performance under the new EPR system.

Cody said parts of the feedback form will be used to set expectations and goals for airmen over the coming year, and the conversation between a supervisor and an airman will make sure those objectives are clear and understood. When it comes time for an airman’s performance evaluation, the supervisor will look back on the expectations set during the feedback process and decide how well that airman met those goals.

But the “Knowing Your Airman” section will not be used for evaluation purposes, the Air Force said.

Cody said these conversations are a crucial part of building a positive relationship between airmen and their supervisors, and helping ensure airmen don’t derail fruitful careers in the Air Force.

“If we don’t have these conversations with our folks, if we don’t build this trust with them, let them know we care about them, if they have problems, it could certainly impact their ability to serve in the future,” Cody said. “If people do not have financial stability, over time, that can be inconsistent with military service. The same thing can be said for relationship problems. If your relationships and your finances are not in order, where you can do what your nation is going to ask you to do, over time if we can’t help you get those affairs in order; that’s going to put service at risk. It does today, for people. So what we’re trying to do is make sure we have these conversations with our airmen up front.”

Some airmen disagree strongly, and feel the questions are too invasive.

“The AF is trying to control too much of our lives,” a commenter named Sara wrote on the Air Force’s June 9 release online. “Bad idea.”

“I go to work to work and leave my family out of it,” Air Force Times reader Joshua Cyr wrote on the newspaper’s Facebook page. “I think this is all overkill. Where in the corporate world do you see your boss babysitting you? We are all grownups; people make bad decisions because they choose to. No matter what you do, you will not be able to stop someone from doing things by asking them these mandated questions.”

Cody said airmen should not feel they’ll be harmed by discussing the challenges they face, and that the conversations meant to be sparked by the feedback process are meant to help airmen find solutions to their problems.

What’s more, Cody said, airmen facing struggles need to know they’re not alone.

“Everybody goes through stresses in life,” Cody said. “Everybody goes through ups and downs. The vast majority [of airmen], at any time in a career, will need to get some guidance and help, or at least have a conversation with somebody on getting some good ideas on finance, whether that’s talking about investing in the Thrift Savings [Plan], or talking about, ‘Hey you really have to think about living within your means because the unexpected happens.’ The idea of young couples getting married, or brand-new relationships, and how that can be challenging over time. And understanding that we have resources available to our airmen. We pay to make sure we have trained experts to help people when they go through these situations in their lives. You can’t do that if you don’t know those things are going on.”

For example, the Air Force and other branches of the military have been struggling with near-record rates of suicide in recent years, as well as post-traumatic stress stemming from years of warfare. Senior Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, Cody’s spokesman, said in an email that the form’s question about stressors could help a supervisor identify airmen who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or post-traumatic stress.

But the question also could help identify financial, work-related or relationship stresses, and allow the supervisor to help an airman find solutions to them.

“The intent is to begin a conversation about stress and identify how the supervisor can relieve any stress on the airman,” Hoover said.

Cody acknowledged that some airmen might lie when asked if they’re budgeting properly and living within their means. But supervisors will likely know if that’s the case, he said. For example, a supervisor might be getting calls from creditors looking to collect money from an airman under his command. Or, Cody said, an airman may be having trouble maintaining proper uniform standards, suggesting he’s spending his money improperly.

Hoover said the feedback form isn’t meant to be punitive, and an airman who answers self-assessment questions dishonestly wouldn’t face punishment. But if an airman doesn’t answer honestly at first, he said, the supervisor needs to keep talking to that airman to build trust between the two.

“It’s not about, ‘Fill this out correctly or you will be punished,’ ” Hoover said. “It’s about, ‘Think about where you are in these areas, and then let’s have a discussion.’ ”

Cody said the notion of supervisors talking to their airmen about these personal issues is not a new one in the Air Force — it’s just being formalized for the first time.

“This has always been a requirement for supervisors, to ask these questions, to be this involved,” Cody said. “We’re just putting it on a form to make sure that we create the conversation.”

Some airmen fear the Air Force is sending a mixed message by telling supervisors to engage with airmen about their personal lives, while also expecting them to not engage in favoritism or fraternization.

One Air Force Times commenter referenced the case of Lt. Col. Craig Perry, a basic military training support squadron commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, who was removed from command last year. An investigation later found that he carried on unprofessional relationships with noncommissioned officers in his unit and that interactions with subordinates in his unit undermined wing leadership. Perry’s wife, Caroline, told Air Force Times that she and her husband were trying to reach out to families in his unit and help care for them. The Air Force says that is not why Perry was fired.

“Just ask the squadron commander at Lackland who got fired for knowing what was going on in his troops’ lives,” Air Force Times reader Mark Joyner wrote. “When a rater finds out that his tech [sergeant] or [staff sergeant] that he’s doing feedback on did something egregious, like having one of his lonely airmen over just for a meal — oops, you’re TOO involved in their life — here’s your referral [Enlisted Performance Report] and [letter of reprimand] to go with it. The Air Force can’t have it both ways.”

Cody said the Air Force teaches airmen about the line between a professional and an unprofessional relationship, and supervisors will know when taking an interest in their airmen’s lives crosses the line.

“To me, it’s not as gray,” Cody said. “You know when it’s gone unprofessional. When you’re doing things that just aren’t appropriate, that you wouldn’t do for anybody else, when you’re doing things that you wouldn’t say out loud. That point where it becomes unprofessional [is] where you wouldn’t want anybody to know what you were doing.”

Getting started

Cody said that the Air Force has begun distributing guidance to squadrons to answer supervisors’ questions on mechanical issues, such as how to fill out the new forms. There will not be formal training sessions launched specifically for the new feedback form.

But supervisors already receive instruction on how to give feedback to their airmen when they attend the requisite Airman Leadership School, Cody said, so the concept should not be new to them. Over the next few weeks, Cody said, supervisors should ask their bosses questions to clarify anything that remains unclear about the new feedback form.

Cody said conducting an initial feedback review for airmen took anywhere from two to three hours when his office beta-tested the form.

But engaging with airmen throughout the Air Force is crucial, he said.

“You can care a lot about people,” Cody said. “You can be willing to do a lot of things for our airmen. And we expect airmen to do that. We are a family. We take care of each other. We have to be there to support each other.”

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