By Barbara Haga, October 20, 2021

Last week, I taught two performance classes and have been working on a description of a two-part webinar series that will take place in the spring on the idea of setting expectations for both performance and conduct and using available tools to build in accountability in both aspects of employee management.

Let’s talk about performance standards – not so much in terms of case law and regulations, but from a more practical standpoint. When trying to build accountability in performance, the performance plan must measure what is important and do so in a clear, understandable, and reasonable way. Discussing some of my favorite points might be worthwhile.

Measuring results

I am sure most of you have heard this phrase before. We need to measure results. But what does that mean in a practical sense? I believe it means we should be focusing on outcomes – papers written, briefing delivered, meetings participated in, reports prepared, and claims processed – AND what those things meant to the organization.

When thinking about results, let’s look at a couple of things in the list. What did that delivered briefing do? Did it help citizens understand how to tap into government services?  Did it mean that managers were up to date on recent changes in case law? Did it mean that organizations were on notice of pending IT changes that would protect systems from cyber criminals?

What about processing the claims? Were travelers promptly reimbursed? Were questionable credit card transactions identified in a timely manner and appropriate follow-up action initiated? Were injured workers paid compensation within a reasonable period after their continuation-of-pay?

I’ve spoken about attending meetings quite a bit in recent training, because I have seen it in a lot of narratives for high grade positions justifying ratings above fully successful. The narrative is responding to a standard that says something about representing the organization in biweekly meetings.  The narrative sometimes just repeats that – the employee represented the organization in these meetings. So, are we measuring butts in chairs, or should the measure be about contributing something in those meetings? Perhaps the person delivers briefings in these meetings or leads a discussion on an important initiative in the meeting or steps up to lead a workgroup to report back at the next meeting.

Perhaps the employee prepares written notes from the meeting that are circulated to other members of the unit. It seems to me that if a measure is part of a critical element, there should be something more there than taking up a seat.

Complete work

I see a lot of performance standards that stop too soon.  I believe a lot of this comes from guidance about writing measures with numbers in them (and that is just guidance, neither the Federal Circuit nor the MSPB in their decisions interpreting Chapter 43 said you had to have numbers in standards.) Because managers are sometimes uncomfortable with subjective judgments, I see standards that say, “Complete XX of things (reports, documents, transactions, etc.) on time.”

Shouldn’t those things be complete, accurate, and apply up-to-date guidance? Shouldn’t the supervisor be able to hold the employee accountable for effective oral or written communication?

Here’s an example of a standard that I believe stopped too soon – Perform document system integrity checks weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually.

I’d be willing to bet that was copied word for word from the position description. But the purpose of the position description is to assign the work. The purpose of the performance standard is to set what fully successful performance looks like. Should the integrity check be thorough?  Complete? Conducted in accordance with current guidelines? Results communicated to appropriate officials in a timely manner? Those are the measures that need to be in the performance standards.

Standards written at grade

I see performance requirements all too often that are written at a lower level than what they should be for the grade assigned to the job. It could be that management is just not asking for what they could/should require, or it may be that there is a poor performer in the job that the supervisor is allowing to perform below grade. Neither of those are line with this idea of accountability.

If you go to the Classifier’s Handbook, you will find descriptions of the various factors and how they fit with grade structure. (I’m reaching WAY back to my classification days, but sometimes it’s necessary!)  Factor 2-4 is listed as the typical level of supervisory controls one would find in either a professional or administrative GS-13 position (see pp. 14-15). Here’s a sample description for level 2-4:

  • The supervisor sets the overall objectives and resources available. The employee and supervisor, in consultation, develop deadlines, projects, and work to be done.
  • The employee, having developed expertise in the line of work, is responsible for planning and carrying out the assignment, resolving most of the conflicts that arise, coordinating the work with others as necessary, and interpreting policy on own initiative in terms of established objectives. In some assignments, the employee also determines the approach to be taken and the methodology to be used. The employee keeps the supervisor informed of progress and potentially controversial matters.
  • Completed work is reviewed only from an overall standpoint in terms of feasibility, compatibility with other work, or effectiveness in meeting requirements or expected results. (My italics)

When I see GS-13 standards that talk about detailed review of every document (documents have less than two errors 90 percent of the time), something is wrong.  Standards that indicate that GS-13s escalate what the employee determines to be “complex” matters to higher level officials without any requirement for them to do any background work or make recommendations don’t seem to line up very well with what a GS-13 should be doing.

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