Haslam shrugs off comptroller's criticism of his merit-pay plan

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during a news conference at the Republican Governors Association annual conference on Nov. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday brushed aside concerns raised by state comptroller auditors about his new merit-pay plan for thousands of Tennessee government employees.

"I think the good news is that we now have 40,000 employees that really, on a three-times-a-year basis, are having discussion about their performance," Haslam told reporters after a speech to a business group at Opryland Hotel in Nashville. "That's good for everyone. We will continue to get better in terms of how we rate and evaluate people."

In the comptroller's examination, auditors questioned whether enough managers and supervisors were properly trained over three-plus years to ensure the new standards, as well as employee performance plans and pivotal evaluations, work objectively and fairly as promised.

The audit describes a sometimes-troubled rollout of training for some of the 8,500 supervisors and managers in the new evaluations because of a short-staffed human resources department. The audit describes poor communications at times and training session sometimes being cancelled abruptly.

Auditors also said "most agencies reported that raters lack proficiency in developing SMART-based goals and in completing qualitative evaluations." Yet another finding states "weaknesses in the performance management model could affect the objectiveness and fairness of the process."

The audit, released in December, notes 43 percent of cabinet-level department officials interviewed by auditors said a number of their workers have "difficult-to-measure job duties." Moreover, lower-level positions are likely never to receive an "outstanding" rating - the top ranking in the five-tier evaluation system - due to a requirement their work would need to affect agency-wide goals.

Employees were rated in September and raises based on that go out later this month. The 2012 law did away with across-the-board raises for state workers. Employees in the bottom two categories would get no raises at all. However, the law doesn't stop state lawmakers from passing across-the-board raises.

Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter said that while the department indeed faced challenges, it surmounted problems, hired outside experts to help with training and revised training when needed. Hunter also says a number of issues raised came in the midst of the training rollout.

Of the issues raised in the audit, Haslam said, "I'll put it this way, start with the fact that TSEA [Tennessee State Employees Association], who would be the people most likely to complain about the process, wrote a letter to me before Christmas saying 'we appreciate the process, we thought the raises that were given were outstanding and basically sent a letter of congratulations on it.'"

But asked last week by the Times Free Press about the audit's findings, TSEA officials sent a statement saying the organization "confirms the numerous concerns that have been brought to the Department of Human Resources' attention since the TEAM Act's implementation in 2012.

"Less than one month away from the first distribution of Pay-For-Performance raises, this audit raises serious concerns regarding the objectivity and fairness of the evaluation process used to determine the raises," the statement read.

The association also said officials hope the audit "will give further gravity to the concerns voiced by TSEA, state employees, and state legislators over the past four years."

TSEA also said it hopes to continue to work with the Haslam administration to resolve issues.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550, or follow via twitter at AndySher1.