By Barbara Haga, June 16, 2021
Last month, we began a discussion of the relationship between position descriptions and performance plans. We talked about the need for a solid foundation and looked at the various types of things position descriptions establish for positions, from physical requirements and medical standards to the necessity of holding a certain license or certificate. In this column, we are going to look at where performance plans and position descriptions should intersect.
General Schedule Positions
Nonsupervisory GS positions classified under the Factor Evaluation System (FES) have basically two parts – the description of the major duties and responsibilities, and the nine FES factors that are common to white collar positions. According to the Classifier’s Handbook, the factors are:
Factor 1 – Knowledge Required by Position
- Kind or nature of knowledge and skills needed.
- How the knowledge and skills are used in doing the work.
Factor 2 – Supervisory Controls
- How the work is assigned.
- Employee’s responsibility for carrying out the work.
- How the work is reviewed.
Factor 3 – Guidelines
- Nature of guidelines for performing the work.
- Judgment needed to apply the guidelines or develop new guides.
Factor 4 – Complexity
- Nature of the assignment.
- Difficulty in identifying what needs to be done.
- Difficulty and originality involved in performing the work.
Factor 5 – Scope and Effect
- Purpose of the work.
- Impact of the work product or service.
Factor 6 – Personal Contacts
- People and conditions/setting under which contacts are made.
Factor 7 – Purpose of Contacts
- Reasons for contacts in Factor 6.
Factor 8 – Physical Demands
- Nature, frequency, and intensity of physical activity.
Factor 9 – Work Environment
- Risks and discomforts caused by physical surroundings and the safety precautions necessary to avoid accidents or discomfort.
Blue Collar Job Grading
Blue collar or wage jobs are graded using a similar breakdown. These factors are outlined in the Introduction to the Federal Wage System Job Grading System. The four factors are Skill and Knowledge, Responsibility, Physical Effort, and Working Conditions. While fewer in number, they cover most of the same things that the FES factors cover.
Which factors are particularly important for performance accountability? Let’s begin with the first two.
Factor 1 – Knowledge is important, but the performance standards need to talk about how that knowledge is applied. I often see performance plans that just repeat the required knowledge instead of a proper demonstration of what the knowledge would look like. Examples that illustrate this issue for a GS-14 position follow:
Original: Demonstrates understanding of the agency’s mission and priority initiatives and develops and executes strategies to engage constituents.
Modified: Demonstrates an expert understanding of the agency’s mission and priority initiatives and consistently develops and executes well thought-out strategies to proactively engage constituents.
Factor 2 – Supervisory Controls describe the level at which the work is performed, or in other words, how much supervision should be needed. I often discover problems in this regard because the description in the standard clearly requires more than what should be needed for the grade of the position. Sometimes, this is just a case of writing too low. Sometimes, however, this reflects that there is a performance problem.
Let’s go back to the classification standard. Supervisory controls for a job classified at GS-13 (Factor 2-4) should be something like this:
- 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.
Performance standards should align with those levels of control. Here are two examples from a GS-13 position where the expectations didn’t match up very well:
Original a: Responds to general questions, requests for information and inquiries within one business day. Elevates more complex questions to supervisor or other individual responsible within one business day.
What was the problem here?
First, the supervisor didn’t have a way to track whether the inquiries were answered in one business day or not. I suggested the supervisor instead set a written standard of “timely” but in discussion with the employee communicate a general policy that inquiries typically should be responded to in one business day.
I would not recommend trying to create a system to track every single interaction. This supervisor’s situation wasn’t unique. I see this type of measure in performance plans at many agencies but when pressed the supervisors admit that can’t actually tell whether the work is done in one day or five.
The second sentence is also a problem. This is a GS-13. The individual shouldn’t be able to get away with kicking everything that was more complex upstairs as the standard suggests. The employee should do the necessary leg work and provide recommendations if they are performing at grade.
Modified a: Responds to general questions, requests for information and inquiries in a timely manner. Provides clear, accurate and up to date information. Identifies situations requiring higher level intervention in a timely manner and provides complete background information and recommendations as appropriate.
Original b: Prepares correspondence, memoranda, briefing papers, etc., in advance of due dates, clear, accurate, thorough, appropriately written and formatted.
The measures regarding document preparation were fine. The issue related to submitting the documents ahead of deadline caught my eye. I asked about this measure. The supervisor wanted the documents early so there was time to revise them. Apparently, the written work was bad enough that this extra review was routinely needed.
The problem is the standard is written below what Fully Successful should be. Here’s what the rewritten standard looked like:
Modified b: Prepares correspondence, memoranda, briefing papers, etc. by due date. Identifies any issues with deadlines with supervisor sufficiently in advance for alternatives to be effective. Documents are clear, accurate, thorough, appropriately written and formatted. [email protected]