By Barbara Haga, November 17, 2021

You have a very clear and understandable and reasonable performance plan in place.  That’s great. What now? Is this something you will pull out at progress review time or at the end of cycle and use to provide a rating – or will you use it to provide feedback to employees as the cycle progresses?

When the current version of 5 USC 43 was designed as part of the Civil Service Reform Act, the idea was that management would identify performance elements and the standards by which those elements would be measured in advance of holding employees accountable to meet them.

At that time, appraisal systems in agencies were often very routinized with employees being rated on things like “quantity” or “quality” with no explanation of what that meant for one position as opposed another.  Congress set out requirements in 5 USC 4302(c) regarding communicating the performance requirements to each individual and providing on going appraisal throughout the cycle.

This system was supposed to make things better. It was (and is) a tool that should have improved the effectiveness of appraisals.  It should have improved performance at both individual and organizational levels – the theory being, “if everyone is singing from the same sheet of music” you should get a better result than if each employee is interpreting requirements their own way. The system established in Chapter 43 wasn’t designed to make onerous work requirements for supervisors or to torture employees. Unfortunately, some of that intent seems to be lost in how agency systems have been implemented. (That’s a topic for another column.)

How Was it Supposed to Work?

5 CFR 430.204(b)(1) lists what appraisal systems should include. One of the items is that employees should be evaluated during the appraisal period on their elements and standards.

The regulations at 5 CFR 430.206(b)(2) require that “Performance plans shall be provided to employees at the beginning of each appraisal period (normally within 30 days).” But then what?  The following section in 5 CFR 430.207(b) sets out the requirements for ongoing appraisal:

An appraisal program shall include methods for appraising each critical and non-critical element during the appraisal period. Performance on each critical and non-critical element shall be appraised against its performance standard(s). Ongoing appraisal methods shall include, but not be limited to, conducting one or more progress reviews during each appraisal period.

Progress reviews are good, but feedback once every six months is probably not going to get the job done.

For this system to operate in an optimal way, employees need to have elements and standards that they understand, and they should be receiving information throughout the cycle (not just at progress review time) so that they have a clear picture of where they stand in comparison to that plan.

I mentioned when I wrote about setting conduct expectations that most people will try to comply if they know what the requirements are. The same idea applies here.  Where managers run into difficulties is when they have plans that they can’t even explain. Perhaps they included measurers they can’t actually track. Or, employees were told everything was great during the cycle, but the end of cycle rating is significantly lower.

Sometimes managers have tried to pull in things that were never in the plan to begin with as justification to explain a rating lower than what the employee believed he/she deserved.

Feedback on Accomplishments

On their webpage on feedback, OPM points out how feedback fits into the overall concept of performance management:

Effective and timely feedback is a critical component of a successful performance management program and should be used in conjunction with setting performance goals. If effective feedback is given to employees on their progress towards their goals, employee performance will improve. People need to know in a timely manner how they’re doing, what’s working, and what’s not.

OPM uses the analogy of playing “Hot or Cold” to describe how some managers handle performance feedback. They hand out performance plans and then the game begins:

“You’re cold! Now you’re getting warmer! You’re HOT!” Even children playing the popular “Hot or Cold” game know that to perform well (find the hidden object) people need to be told how they’re doing. Without feedback, you’re walking blind. At best, you’ll accidentally reach your goal. At worst, you’ll wander aimlessly through the dark, never reaching your destination.

This is so fundamental it seems I shouldn’t have to say it. But playing “hot or cold” with performance unfortunately is real. Think about these types of rating discussions:

Scenario A

Employee:  I appreciate the nice words you included in the narrative for this Level 4 rating, but I’d like to do better on my next rating. What would it take to get a Level 5?

Supervisor: (Uncomfortable wiggling in seat) Well, umm. I can’t say for sure. I would have to see what you do next year, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Scenario B

Employee: You mentioned in the narrative that the reports you’ve listed didn’t have citations to the most recent guidance, but some of these are from four months ago.  Why didn’t you tell me then?

Supervisor:  I was saving up the information so we could have this meeting.

Performance Management IRL

IRL means “In Real Life.” Work is real life for a portion of every employee’s day.  Performance management is about ensuring that employee performance is meeting minimum requirements and hopefully doing much more than that. By having employees meet performance requirements, then the organization should be meeting the mission, hitting the goals, taking care of the needs of the serviced population, and/or giving the customers what they are due. It is not an esoteric exercise. It’s about giving clear guidelines and then letting people know whether they met them or not.

Employees may do better because they figure out on their own how to achieve more, but a manager can get them there more quickly if they address things when they happen. That’s not just big errors, either. It could be just day to day things like, “this paragraph could be clearer if you added this information,” or “the data you included is absolutely accurate, but too much detail for this audience,” or “there is an assumption in your analysis that isn’t explained and needs to be addressed.”

It’s just not honest not to give feedback based on what the person did or didn’t do as measured by the performance plan. [email protected]

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