No more job for life for Saudi civil servants

Government employ­ees, long immune to get­ting fired even for poor job performance, are fac­ing work performance evaluations that include potential penalties.

A Saudi man explores social media on his mobile device as he sits at a café in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.(Reuters)

2016/10/23 Issue: 78 Page: 11

The Arab Weekly
Rob L. Wagner

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.

Rob L. Wagner is an American journalist based in Saudi Arabia.

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