By Barbara Haga, January 14, 2020

I’ve looked at quite a few performance plans recently and I keep seeing the same problems showing up. Performance plans full of boilerplate measures that deal with what should be conduct issues, lists of tasks with no discussion of how the quality of that work will be performed, and pages and pages of measures that probably neither the manager nor the employee actually has a grasp of what that means in their daily work.

For the next few columns I am going to focus on what these problems look like and what can be done to fix them.

I wrote about many of these issues when I first started writing for FELTG way back in 2013, but I still see these issues cropping up when I am leading classes on performance.

Putting Conduct Issues into Performance Plans

In many of the situations I am going to  describe, the “blame” for including these falls largely on high-level agency officials and Congress and whomever is advising them!

First, let’s step back a minute. The performance plan is not the document that sets standards of behavior for Federal employees. The performance plan should identify the key aspects of the job and what acceptable performance (and other levels if you write them) looks like. Expectations regarding behavior or conduct standards are set in multiple ways – some things are established by 1) common sense (you can’t murder anyone at work), 2) program folks in the organization (you can use your government computer to do this at lunch and before and after work but not that), 3)  supervisors (if you need to leave the work area, please find me and let me know before you go), 4) agency policies (you must have EMT certification to be a firefighter), and 5) union contracts (you have up to two hours from the start of the shift to call in and request unscheduled leave). If we need to discipline somewhere down the road, the questions will be: Was it a valid rule? Did or should the employee have known about it?

For some reason, however, it seems every time management wants to send a message, agencies start adding required critical elements to cover what should be a conduct expectation. I’ve seen a host of them — everything from protecting classified material to acting ethically and completing yearly IT security training.

Let’s look at these in a little more detail:

Protecting classified material

Here’s an example:

Exhibits individual and personal accountability for classified information under their custody and control by taking precautions to ensure unauthorized persons do not gain access to classified information through proper marking, transmission, and safeguarding; reports unauthorized disclosures, security incidents, violations and vulnerabilities to the appropriate management official and/or security official; completes initial/annual refresher security awareness training,  initial/biennial derivative classifier training and other related security training as required.

Okay, that’s great. But let’s think through this. If an employee intentionally discloses classified material for gain or political reasons, for example, I don’t think there is any doubt that person would end up in jail, so the appraisal would be a moot point. Even if the failure was unintentional, there is likely to be significant action, depending on the sensitivity of what was disclosed. I really don’t think anyone will be writing a demonstration period or improvement notice about it.

The other concern with a standard like this is that it’s essentially a pass/fail measure – the person either follows it or they don’t. That wouldn’t be a problem except that most of you don’t rate elements at two levels. You have something higher than Fully Successful. So how does an employee demonstrate performance above Fully Successful on this? They do a little briefing in a staff meeting, or they write an article for an agency newsletter, or they stand up and swear they REALLY believe? Better yet, I suppose an employee could bring a sleeping bag and spend the night on the floor guarding the classified safe, thereby demonstrating his or her commitment!

Demonstrating Integrity

Employee consistently demonstrates integrity and accountability in achieving Departmental program and management goals.

That statement is part of a benchmark Fully Successful standard for one agency. The accountability part might apply to performance, but it’s kind of like repeating a word in its definition – the whole performance plan is about accountability. If an employee is not demonstrating integrity, they could be providing inaccurate information, hiding information, falsifying documents, and a host of other things that are all likely conduct issues. If an employee truly acts in such a manner, he or she is likely to be the subject of a disciplinary action and not given a warning period to demonstrate that they can behave properly.

Completing required training

There are lots of variations on this one – everything from safety training to IT security training to continuing education requirements. I know from personal experience that a standard on IT security training was used as a hammer to make employees do their annual training because they wouldn’t do it otherwise; they would put it off until the supervisor threatened them with “You’re not going to get the highest rating this year if you don’t do your training on time.” Is that a performance issue? I don’t think so. It would make more sense to me to just order the employees to do it and then follow up appropriately if needed.

But, let’s say the manager wanted to deal with it as a performance matter, so you spend your time writing an opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance letter. Unless the employee is completely oblivious, he or she would complete the training during the window and now they’ve improved. And, you can repeat it all again next year since there is no record to use to build a more severe action next year.

More importantly, going to training should not be a performance measure for anyone.  We’re talking about a few hours of work in most cases.  A couple of hours out of 2087 in a cycle: Is that critical?  Maybe doing something with what you learned in the training might make sense as a measure. There’s an easy way to see whether any of these elements are used effectively or not. Look through a sample of performance appraisals and see how the supervisors documented performance on them.

Check back next month for more thoughts on performance measures.  And, if you want to attend an in-depth session — from system requirements to within-grades, writing good measures, and taking action on unacceptable performance —  join me for in Washington April 15-16, 2020 for Maximizing Accountability in Performance Management. We will spend two days on everything you need to know about performance. [email protected]

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