Short-cutting the Selection of City Employees Dumbs Down the Civil Service System

In Los Angeles, the selection of city employees typically involves four separate tests: an application review, a written test of general qualifications, a certification interview, and the working test, probation. The first three tests predict job performance; the final test, probation, is designed to appraise job performance.

Civil Service Rule 1.26 describes the probationary period as a time “…during which an employee is required to demonstrate his/her fitness by the actual performance of the duties and responsibilities of his/her position …”

Probation gives the appointing authority time (usually six months) to observe the new employee’s work. It provides a sound basis for the authority’s “remove-or-retain” decision at—or before—the end of each probationary period.

Used as intended, the working test would keep poor performers off the city payroll. It would rely on a job-specific appraisal form, which could later be used for the annual review of the employee’s job performance. A rating form that accurately reflects what employees do on the job could, in fact, be used for such other management actions as placement, training/development, etc.

But in Los Angeles, the working test is not used effectively. Appointing authorities understand that the probationary period is a test. They ensure that new hires know what they’re expected to do. They insist that supervisors monitor probationers’ work carefully. Yet most appointing authorities shortcut the working test by using a single rating form for all probationers, regardless of their duties and responsibilities.

Here’s how that works. Betty is a clerk typist, She types, files, answers the phone and maintains the public counter. But her probationary report may well rate her on Quantity & Quality of Work, Oral & Written Communication, Personal Relations, Adaptability and Work Habits — factors that are undefined, and for which no standards are provided.

Jack is a management analyst in Betty’s department. He develops cost control programs, maintains the equipment inventory, prepares statistical reports and conducts studies. Jack’s probationary rating will probably be made on the same rating form used to rate Betty. It will focus on some or all seven factors used in Betty’s rating. So will the probationary ratings for painters, truck operators, and all other department new hires.

Probationary ratings used throughout the city organization fail on at least three main counts: they don’t evaluate what employees do on the job, they rely too heavily on the subjective judgment of the rater, and they violate civil service regulations. Moreover, the continued use of such flawed, trait-rating procedures thwarts consideration of more effective ways to select civil service employees, and manage their performance.

Appointing authorities cling to their one-size-fits-all working test because, they say, it’s “user-friendly.” And probationers, assured by co-workers that probationary ratings rarely lead to termination, are not likely to complain. But off the record, some new hires say it tells them the city doesn’t really care what employees do on the job. And critics wonder if Mayor Villaraigosa knows how badly he and his predecessors have screwed things up.

E-mail Samuel at samuelmsperling@yahoo.com.