By Rob L. Wagner
23 October 2016
Jeddah – Saudi government employees, long immune to getting fired even for poor job performance, are facing work performance evaluations that include potential penalties. Yet the learning curve towards administering fair and objective assessments is expected to be daunting.
The Ministry of Civil Service announced a programme in April to have the ministries of Justice, Communications and Information Technology, Transport, Social Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Culture and Information, and Agriculture develop semi-annual job assessments for their employees. The programme was formally launched in October and affects 1.5 million Saudis working in the public sector. It is expected to expand to other ministries.
Under the programme, government workers can be fired if they fail to improve their work performance after three years. They can lose bonuses after the first year of unsatisfactory employment, face disciplinary action after the second year and risk dismissal after the third year. Future pay increases may be denied to poorly performing workers.
“Three years is a bit long,” said Kamilia Karayyim, a human resources consultant who works in the private sector and academia in Saudi Arabia. “What the heck went on before that?”
Karayyim said there are “many good performance evaluation systems” in place but the quality of work reviews vary. She also said Arab culture was not always the right environment to produce fair and objective work assessments.
“We are an amiable culture,” said Karayyim, noting that unfavourable reviews are rare in the workplace. “There is nepotism and favouritism in the system. It will be a challenge. In the private sector there is a little more push because there are profits to consider but if there is no clear direction, no mission and (employers) are working to do something (develop a new programme) from scratch, it will be a challenge.”
The Civil Service Ministry’s plan calls for five categories in an evaluation: Excellent, very good, good, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Premium bonuses range from 5-6% for an “excellent” rating to 1-2% for “satisfactory” work.
One university professor, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the plan, said his university had a “quota” in which only a specific percentage of employees receive an equivalent to an “A” rating, another specific percentage of workers receive a “B” evaluation, and so on.
“How is that fair and equitable?” he asked. “What if everyone in the department did an excellent job but some have to fail according to the quota system? Or if everyone was a poor performer but some employees must receive an ‘A’ rating?”
He also noted that stated policies, goals and missions in the public sector do not reflect the reality of the workplace in which supervisors may prevent an employee from achieving a required goal or task because of time constraints, expense or shortage of personnel. The supervisor then could give the employee a lower rating for failing to meet the stated goal.
The professor also said the workplace environment undermines the goal to administer objective reports.
“Let’s face it, there is a political component in performance evaluations that is very problematic and difficult to control,” he said. “There are clashes in cultures, nationalities and tribes that manifest themselves in the performance evaluation.”
Naser Chowdhury, 33, a public sector worker originally from Mumbai, said homeland politics often spill over into the Saudi workplace.
“We have about 20 guys from different regions and countries, all in South Asia, and four of them are supervisors,” Chowdhury said. “Things get very messy and confusing when one guy supervises another when their families at home are rivals.”
Karayyim said government workers would have difficulty with the new system following years of receiving positive work assessments.
“They won’t be able to handle it,” she said. “They will resign, take sick leave or get kicked out. For older employees, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Very few will shape up, especially the ones that have been there the longest.”
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Negative performance assessments allow government employers to weed out poorly performing employees and replace them with highly motivated and productive workers with a work ethic. More efficient workers end up helping Saudi Arabia’s struggling economy. An objective work evaluation will become an important tool when some ministries become privatised and workers must reapply for their jobs.
Karayyim said 2017 would be a critical period for the transition. “I think 2018 should be better,” she said.
Chowdhury said there is a silver lining in the programme. “Eventually, it will work itself out and, at long last, there will be accountability for those workers who don’t do their job. I am optimistic,” he said.