Performance Appraisals Designed to Improve Performance

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By • November 25, 2012 Comments

Sure, appraisals are supposed to reward the best performers, but many contend that high ratings are rotated based on informal quotas and that consistent excellence is seldom rewarded consistently. And, of course, appraisals are supposed to assist in clearing out the “dead wood”, although everyone knows that’s not really happening in the halls and byways of Federal agencies.

Few, however, ponder the possibility of appraisals focused on improving performance.  It’s always about the rating.  This article is for those who have not yet succumbed to cynicism and want to see an appraisal system that’s worth having.  I contend that performance appraisal is not only HR’s most visible program, but could become its most useful.

The past is prologue

To understand this article, readers may need to be reminded of two recent postings to FedSmith.  The first of these bore the title How HR Should View Critical Elements.  In that piece, I contend that good performance appraisal programs are often a reflection of good critical elements.  Generic elements inevitably lead to “generic” or “benchmark” standards.  These result in appraisals that meet requirements but accomplish little more that the same subjective ratings supervisors would have given had there been no elements or standards.  The intent is to meet requirements while giving lip service to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).

Another article titled, The First Commandment of Performance Appraisal focused on “performance standards”.  It shows how any attempt to evaluate employees in terms of quality, quantity, and/or timeliness inevitably leads management to metric or weasel-worded standards.  Neither of these approaches has worked out well over the 3+ decades since the Civil Service Reform Act was implemented.

Standards presuming to rate people by the numbers (often referred to as a “bean count”) can be used effectively in only a few Federal environments – like call centers, claims processing units, etc.  In these workplaces, data on individual employee performance is commonly maintained and available to management.  The vast majority of Feds, however, work elsewhere.

Workplace “metricians” contend that all critical elements can be evaluated quantitatively.  Supervisors and managers, however, believe that even if they could gather and maintain such data, rating by metrics would prove wasteful.  For reasons discussed in that article, supervisors believe that bean counting would undermine the very service they and their staffs provide to the public.

Wedded to weasel words

Most Feds are rated by subjectively comparing their performance to “weasel words”.  Instead of hard unambiguous numbers, standards rely upon softer prose, often provided by agency experts.  Weasel-worded performance standards relieve management of the bean count but also lead to ratings that are blatantly subjective.

Weasel-worded standards often follow a “copycat” format.  From one level to the next, a few adjectives or adverbs are changed.  These fragments from the Department of Interior’s (I could cite several other agencies as well) “Benchmark Standards” serve as examples:

Fully Successful

“The employee demonstrates good, sound performance that meets organizational goals…”

Superior

“The employee demonstrates unusually good performance that exceeds expectations in critical areas and exhibits a sustained support of organizational goals…”

Exceptional

“The employee demonstrates particularly excellent performance that is of such high quality that organizational goals have been achieved that would not have been otherwise…”

These rhetorical gimmicks do not escape employee notice.  They also tend to become inflated, leading to “walk-on-water” expectations of creativity, clairvoyance, and superhuman aptitudes as authors run out of superlatives.  Truly outstanding employees are unlikely to reach such lofty heights.

The road less traveled

The limited choice of metrics vs. weasel words has vexed the Federal community for decades. I thought these were our only two options for writing standards.  Then an overlooked provision in the Code of Federal Regulations jumped off the page one day.  5 CFR 430.203 states, in part,

“A performance standard may include, but is not limited to, quality, quantity, timeliness, and manner of performance. [Emphasis added]

What would a “manner of performance” standard look like – especially since it differs from quality, quantity, and timeliness?  I presume these measures focus on work habits – the manner in which the employee does his/her job.  Instead of rating someone based on how fast, how accurately or how many; the manner of performance standard would focus attention on how they perform.

A different way to devise performance standards

In this article will illustrate the manner of performance option by using a critical element from one of my old performance plans as a springboard.  I was a Labor Relations Specialist, and the critical element I’ve chosen for this article is, “Case Preparation and Presentation”.  It involves taking HR cases to third-party hearings such as labor arbitration.

Any number of little things can/do go wrong when preparing and presenting cases.  After brainstorming specific problems within the employee’s control, an edited list might have the following items:

  • Demands from several pending cases result in last minute panics
  • The specialist fails to research judge/arbitrator’s past decisions
  • Pre-hearing deadlines are missed
  • Supervisor is uninformed re: status of pending cases
  • Settlement agreements are hastily arranged and decided
  • Opening and/or closing arguments are not prepared in advance

“Manners of performing”, if followed by the employee, might prevent each of these failings in the coming year.  Small, but specific, work habits become the grist for a Fully Successful standard designed to improve case preparation and presentation.  Presuming a five-level evaluation system by employing the titles “Outstanding”, “Superior”, “Fully Successful”, “Marginal” and “Unacceptable” – here’s an example:

Fully Successful Standard

Performs all aspects of the critical element and specifically follows all of the following:

  • Employee will maintain a calendar (accessible to supervisor) used to track progress of assigned cases.  Calendar is reviewed and updated daily.
  • A prospective arbitrator’s published decisions will be reviewed and annotated.
  • Supervisor will be advised at least a week in advance if any deadline might be missed.
  • Within a week of case assignment, employee will prepare a summary of the matter outlining the positions of the parties and forward it to supervisor.
  • Before discussing settlement, will develop options for management’s consideration.
  • Two workdays before any hearing, drafts of opening and closing statements will be confidentially forwarded to potential witnesses.

This example isn’t perfect.  The italicized preface can be changed to any supervisor’s taste, as can the specific work habits you see here.  What’s important is the format – specific work habits that, if encouraged and enforced, might lead to improved job performance.  The reader should notice that the standard doesn’t tell the employee how often s/he doesn’t follow these manners of performing.  The presumption is they follow each of them every day.

Avoiding a “backwards standard”

Where an element can be rated at any one of 5 levels, the next task is to distinguish the Marginal and Unacceptable standards.  Over the course of decades, agencies have been faulted by the MSPB and Federal courts for “backwards” standards.

I’ve settled on pre-formatted or “fill-in-the-blank” standards similar to these:

Marginal Standard

Following formal counseling, fails to follow any 1 item(s) shown in the Fully Successful standard on 2 occasions.

Unsatisfactory Standard

Following formal counseling, fails to follow any combination of item(s) shown in the Fully Successful standard for a total of 5 or more occasions.

The numbers you see in these examples are changeable by the supervisor devising the standards, as is the format.  Moreover, the metric is a simple number that isn’t required unless the supervisor’s assessment of the employee’s competence has led to a formal sit-down.  The idea is not to paint a picture of Marginal and Unacceptable performance.  Instead, frame these as failures to perform at Fully Successful.

Outstanding stands out

Next comes a written standard for the highest level of performance in this particular element, remembering that there might be 3-4 critical elements in a performance plan.  Consider the best performers who have prepared and presented cases in administrative hearings.  What were the little things that makes/made their work stand out?  Here’s a potential list:

  • Uses visual aids to map and/or diagrams events.
  • Provides witnesses with written sets of anticipated questions.
  • Preparation of witnesses includes mock cross-examination.
  • Makes arrangements with judge/arbitrator that will minimize witness waiting time.
  • Has published case law copied and available at hearing.

The standard derived from brainstorming such positive work habits might look like this:

Outstanding Standard

Meets Fully Successful and, in addition, demonstrates all of the following work habits:

  • Employee will identify testimony that might be enhanced by illustration and prepare witnesses to use whiteboard or other acceptable medium.
  • Each witness will be given direct examination questions and their answers from earlier discussions/interviews.
  • First time management witnesses will be prepared at least twice for any given case and provided with simulated cross examination at their last preparatory meeting.
  • In pre-hearing conference, employee will discuss how witnesses may be notified “just in time” to minimize their non-productive hours without delaying the hearing.
  • When citing relevant case law and regulations during testimony or closing arguments, copies will be made available to hearing official.

The statement at the top of this list of work habits is important.  It clearly explains that the highest level performance comes from a List A + List B concept.  List A was designed to improve problematic performance.  List B represents “best practices”.  All are aimed at ensuring positive outcomes and improving performance at the individual level.

Fill-in-the-blank again

As with Marginal and Unacceptable, a standard for Superior can be pre-formatted.  Here’s an example:

Superior Standard

Performs as described in all manners contained in the Fully Successful standard and, in addition, the first two items, but not all of Exceptional.

The blank can be filled with any simple metric, like “half” or “60%”.  Using this format, supervisors can more clearly distinguish among the most common three ratings – “Fully Successful”, “Superior” and “Outstanding” as they’re labeled in this example.  Each standard encourages the employee toward better performance than they may have exhibited the previous year.

Before and after

For comparison purposes, the standards the Navy had in use back in my day read as follows:

Superior

In addition to the Fully Successful standard below, incumbent shows expertise– coupled with creativity– in dealing with unusual or difficult cases.

Fully Successful

Case preparation is thorough, with regulatory or precedential questions or issues explored in detail.  Alternative solutions (including settlements) are researched and presented comprehensively.  Management representative duties are performed in a manner consistent with program policy and third-party requirements.

Marginal

Some aspects of case preparation or presentation are incomplete or technically inaccurate, showing inattention to details.  On occasion, alternative solutions are inconsistent with program goals.

The manner of performance standards look and read differently.  Those created for the critical element “Case preparation and presentation” would be read like this:

Outstanding

Meets Fully Successful and, in addition, demonstrates all of the following work habits:

  • Employee will identify testimony that might be enhanced by illustration and prepare witnesses to use whiteboard or other acceptable medium
  • Each witness will be given direct examination questions and their answers from earlier discussions/interviews.
  • First time management witnesses will be prepared at least twice for any given case and provided with simulated cross examination at their last preparatory meeting.
  • In pre-hearing conference, employee will discuss how witnesses may be notified “just in time” to minimize their non-productive hours without delaying the hearing.
  • When citing relevant case law and regulations during testimony or closing arguments, copies will be made available to hearing official.

Superior

Performs as described in all manners of performance contained in the Fully Successful standard and, in addition, the first two items, but not all, items in Exceptional.

Fully Successful Standard

Performs all aspects of the critical element and specifically follows all of the following:

  • Employee will maintain a calendar (accessible to supervisor) used to track progress of assigned cases.  Calendar is reviewed and updated daily.
  • A prospective arbitrator’s published decisions will be reviewed and annotated.
  • Supervisor will be advised at least a week in advance if any deadline might be missed.
  • Within a week of case assignment, employee will prepare a summary of the matter outlining the positions of the parties and forward it to supervisor.
  • Before discussing settlement, will develop options for management’s consideration.
  • Two workdays before any hearing, drafts of opening and closing statements will be confidentially forwarded to potential witnesses.

Marginal Standard

Following formal counseling, fails to follow any 1 item(s) shown in the Fully Successful standard on 2 occasions.

Unsatisfactory Standard

Following formal counseling, fails to follow any combination of item(s) shown in the Fully Successful standard for a total of 5 or more occasions.

Setting a new course

The Code of Federal Regulations cites three options for developing performance standards: 1) Quantity; 2) Quality; and 3) Manner of performance.  The first three inevitably lead to either metrics or weasel-worded generics.  These standards seldom serve to actually improve individual performance.

The manner of performance approach offers the possibility that the employee will be evaluated against positively stated criteria they can clearly see and understand.  All rating levels are clearly distinguished and focused on perfecting productive work habits where most needed.  While not as definitive as metrics, these standards may prove far more useful.

This idea isn’t for those who want simple solutions to complex problems.  It is of no use to those who wish appraisals would go away. This approach still requires supervisory observation and engagement.  If it’s not for you, head back to the familiar world of metrics and weasel words.

There are hundreds of HR Specialists, however, who have been frustrated when asked for help developing performance standards.  By focusing on work habits that produce results, rather the results themselves, manner of performance standards offer a different perspective – one focused more on improvement than racking and stacking.

As a recent seminar participant wrote in her evaluation, “The ‘manner of performance’ concept seems very intuitive but I can’t figure out why [her agency] has never used/embraced it.  It’s a challenge to write the Fully Successful level, but once that is done, it really should make the evaluation process easier and allow an employee to reach higher and improve.”

© 2014 Robbie Kunreuther. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Robbie Kunreuther.

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About the Author (  |   )

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to www.trainlngfeds.com.

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