By Barbara Haga, January 11, 2022

For agencies that use a calendar year rating cycle, supervisors are in the throes of trying to put together performance narratives now. For some supervisors, this is the worst part of their responsibilities. Why is that?

Sometimes, supervisors don’t fully understand the mechanics of the systems. They don’t understand what the rating levels your agency selected mean and the standards and elements they have written don’t work very well, so trying to measure against them is terribly difficult.  Sometimes they don’t want to tell the employee something he or she doesn’t want to hear – whether that is that the performance is poor or that the performance isn’t at the top, but supervisors are expecting resistance from the individual being rated, or worse yet a rating grievance.

Sometimes, supervisors have been given a limit on who can be rated at what levels, even though that, of course, violates 5 CFR 430.208(c), and they are trying to make things come out right by upper management’s rules. Sometimes, supervisors don’t want to distinguish among employees. It’s easier to say that everyone is at a particular level and avoid the heat.

Problems with writing narratives are not generally a problem with the supervisor’s writing ability, although this argument has been advanced for years, particularly with pay for performance systems.  One comment raised against pay for performance systems was that with pay adjustments tied to ratings, then those who ended up with supervisors who were good at painting the picture of high-level performance would benefit financially throughout their careers, even though others whose performance was just as worthy would lag in their pay rates because reviewing boards wouldn’t judge the less well-written narratives as highly.

I don’t think it is an issue of writing ability. It certainly isn’t a literary contest. I think the problem is often that the supervisor has identified the level they want to “give,” and they are having trouble coming up with the examples to justify it. The horse and cart are out of order. The manager should first be looking at what was accomplished and then determine the rating level.

Level 5 Narratives

The place where this problem is easiest to see is with narratives written for Level 5 ratings. The problem isn’t the writing, it’s the content.

Here’s an example of a narrative written for a Level 5 rating of a GS-12 supervisor. The standard was a garden variety supervisory standard. See if you are convinced by what is written here that the supervisor was performing at Level 5. I have eliminated names of organizations and programs and also have added some notes throughout:

Employee established SOP manual. Volunteered and served on a Committee. [BH note: This was an employee welfare committee that was not relevant to the supervisory role.] Ensured all customers were in receipt of accurate documentation and understood the expectation of any documentation received from Branch. Re-enforced branch policies on how to perform all duties and tasks. Employee coordinated matters concerning internal and external customers of the agency and the office. In addition, coordinated with outside entities directly impacting the agency and office pertaining to the processing of certain actions. Branch increased closure output for CY 2020. [BH note: Much more information was needed here.] Employee ensured all production levels remained sufficient to accomplish the mission. Moreover, employee established standard letters for the staff to use when interacting with customers. Re-enforced importance of accuracy of information to the staff when executing office functions to best represent the branch. Employee continues to be a great asset to the leadership team. [BH note: This platitude doesn’t add anything in terms of documenting exceptional performance.]

So, what’s wrong? This description outlines what should be normal day-to-day supervisory duties. Ensuring that employees coordinate, that production levels are maintained, giving guidance to employees about proper execution of their duties – that should be what we expect supervisors to do. There’s no explanation of how this is exceptional. Here are some matters the supervisor’s supervisor should have addressed:

Developing SOPs: Why was this of particular importance? Were the employees engaged in this? If so, how employees participated or, if not, what the supervisor brought to this task that was exceptional?  Did having the SOP’s lead to benefits during the cycle or could the supervisor anticipate future benefits?

How was communication with customers enhanced? Why were the standard letters noteworthy? How did workforce participate or what did the supervisor do in personally developing them that was noteworthy?

Did any of these initiatives have direct benefits that could be identified?

The narrative almost reads as if the last supervisor wasn’t doing a particularly good job of fulfilling his or her supervisory responsibilities and now someone in the job is taking care of that, That doesn’t necessarily mean that the new supervisor is performing at Level 5.

The lost opportunity in this narrative was the line Branch increased closure output for CY 2020. There should have been documentation of the specifics. Did the closure rate increase by 1% or 10%? The rater should have talked about why this occurred and how the supervisor’s efforts led to that.  The closure rate going up could have been a result of the workers’ efforts, so we should see something about how the supervisor was instrumental in achieving the improvement. What did having more cases closed mean? Does that mean 1) customers got answers quicker, 2) getting answers delivered was cheaper, 3) the backlog was reduced, etc.? What obstacles did the supervisor’s leadership overcome?

The Last Word

I’ve written about this topic for several months now, so this is the last installment.  [Editor’s note: Read Barbara’s other stories on the topic here, here, and here.] If you are a rater or an advisor to raters, perhaps your resolution this year should be to do better.

In the illustration I provided, the rater should have done better. But the reviewing level should have, too. The reviewer should have returned the rating and asked the supervisor to fill in the gaps I identified. It ultimately comes down to the management chain emphasizing what they find important. [email protected]

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