For years, there have been persistent, whispered rumors circulating among Airmen that NCOs and supervisors possessed some kind of secret language or code, understandable only to its initiates, and were somehow communicating amongst themselves and even with unknown NCOs in the future --across space and time --to control and contaminate the careers of their subordinates. One particularly poisonous rumor was that Senior NCOs were using a covert cypher in their troops' performance reports with mysterious and often disastrous results. Until now, no real evidence has ever been unearthed to support these wild claims but now the truth can finally be told.
Few people know that the Randolph AFB Personnel Center has an annex and even fewer know its secret location: in the basement of the Alamo. There, under cover of darkness, generations of Airmen have labored in the shadows over glowing recommendations and marginal performance reports. Guarded night and day by federal agents, the very existence of this facility is known only to a few. I myself was imprisoned there for three long years. While I worked there, in the fortress of servitude, I managed to smuggle out, piece by piece, the tenets of a supervisor's code so diabolical and confusing that it would drive normal men mad. It was years before I had the courage to share this information with outsiders and years more before I was able to find someone willing to publish it. But now, here, finally, consolidated into one document, is the secret code no Airman has been privileged to see...until now!
Writing and reading performance reports is not the straight-forward activity you might suppose that it is. Performance reports are a complex mix of subtle claims, statements, and lies. Over the years, NCOs have modified the format of the performance report until every EPR actually has two layers of meaning. The top layer, the type-written statements, are immediately apparent and understandable to anyone. But there is an insidious second layer, invisible to the untrained eye, that contains even more information. The second layer is a combination of format and secret key words and phrases. Supervisors use the invisible layer to convey their true feelings while pacifying the ratee with the apparently satisfactory ratings on the surface.
Normally, the two layers should coincide in meaning and they usually do. But there are times when a supervisor might be forced to use the code to convey his overall judgement of the ratee while the actual typewritten words might convey a somewhat different meaning. For example, if a supervisor is forced to give an Airman an overall -5- because he failed to document substandard behavior, he can still resort to the Supervisor's Code to document a less than perfect performance.
As all Airmen know, the only way to have a lasting effect on a troop's career is to sabotage his or her performance report. LOCs and LORs and other temporary annoyances come and go and drop out of your record after a couple of years but EPRs are forever. They are always a part of your record. Even at your next duty station. Even after you're retired. Airmen might gleefully PCS thinking they've seen the last of a spiteful supervisor but often, the joke is on them. Their supervisor may have embedded a little chunk of code in their EPR that will be noticed and noted by future raters again and again over the course of the ratee's career. It's as permanent as a case of herpes. Although it's true, as many Airmen argue, that it's the overall EPR rating that's used to calculate your WAPS score, the written content also carries a substantial amount of weight. It's used by Review Boards to choose who gets submitted for Below-the-Zone, Airman of the Quarter, and other programs. If you can't figure out why the Commander won't sign your retraining paperwork and never returns your calls, check your old EPRs.
The code is a manner of writing. It's an agreed upon set of key words that all NCOs understand to have a double meaning. Using these secret key words, a supervisor can write an apparently satisfactory EPR which when read by other NCOs in the know, paints a very different picture of the ratee's performance. Many an Airman have read their EPR and thought it to be acceptable or even commendable but were left scratching their heads wondering why they were never allowed to participate in any reindeer games.
Supervisors insert hidden meaning into an EPR through a combination of secret key words and phrases and formatting. There are two general divisions where effort is focused: the body of the EPR and the Promotion Statement.
How to Conceal Negative Meaning in the Body of the EPR
If you want to give an overall impression of substandard performance, start with the duty title. The duty title should not be for a position with more responsibility than the duty title listed in the last EPR. It should not suggest any kind of growth or advancement or increased experience. If possible, make sure the duty title doesn't imply authority or responsibility. NCOs know that when critical workcenter positions have to be filled, Airman are compared, and the most experienced, efficient, and mature Airman get the job. When an Airman is not assigend to positions of greater responsibility, it signals to any future readers that the ratee's performance was judged to be only average. Or maybe less than average.
White space is an effective yet subtle method of signaling that the ratee is a mediocre performer. White space is the inevitable space left at the end of a bullet statement. Don't make it obvious. Just 10 to 12 spaces should do the trick. Officially white space is acceptable so the ratee can't accuse the rater of sabotaging his career. But future reviewers will understand the excessive white space to be an attempt to communicate less than stellar performance.
List more community-related bullet statements than duty-related bullet statements in the EPR. Or as many as you dare. This makes it clear that the ratee didn't have any (or many) duty-related accomplishments. An EPR with too many such bullets broadcasts a negative message that only the most clueless Senior NCO would miss. To really work this angle, use community-related bullets in the Additional Rater's block too!
Fluffy, say-nothing bullets--great, flowery prose with no specific impact send the message that this person didn't really accomplish anything and the supervisor had to resort to inflated, empty bullet statements to fill the empty space. An example of a fluffy, non-competitive EPR bullet:
- Totally unflappable and focused...can juggle feathers in a hurricane; the epitome of leadership
Use inappropriate or weak epr bullets. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: is this bullet good enough to support the rating or a promotion recommendation? If not, use it!
To make a weak bullet statement even worse, make it into a two-line bullet with a sub-bullet supporting it! Nothing spells unremarkable performance like emphasizing a weak achievement as if it was the best one. For example:
- Innovative customer service representative, complies with all service guidance
-- Adherence to published standard operating procedures reduced waiting 20 percent
Although subtle hints of disapproval can be woven into the body of the EPR as shown above, they can be mistaken for sloppiness or rater inexperience. But there is no mistaking the intent of the Promotion Statement.