“So, Mr. Einstein, what do you plan to come up with next year?”

Performance appraisals are becoming more important to federal employees as pay for performance plans expand. What appraisal techniques work and which ones do not? Absurd performance standards can result if an agency does not pay close attention to how they are being written. Here are suggestions from an expert in the area of writing performance standards.

Performance appraisals keep getting bigger

From one year to the next, greater emphasis is being placed on performance appraisals.  Thousands of employees in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security just completed their first complete pay-for-performance cycle as last fiscal year ended.  (Their “shares” of “pay pools” are presently being decided upon and computed.)  Others are being added to the pay-for-performance rolls with the new fiscal year.

In other agencies, folks are being re-initiated to the five-tiered rating system all of us in government were required to have a decade ago.  Many are returning from two and three-level systems.  The Bush administration’s “Working For America Act” imagines doing away with the GS system and using appraisals as the primary tool for determining salary increases.

Coming to terms with basic terminology

Before biting into the meat of this article, it’s advisable to remind readers who don’t work in Human Resources of appraisal terms and what they mean.  For purposes of this article, I will refer to all rating categories as “critical elements” (or simply “elements”), as the bulk of Federal employees are still being evaluated under that nomenclature.  (DoD’s NSPS employees may refer to such categories as “objectives”.)  Plainly stated, elements tell the employee what management chooses to rate.  They are also the subject of this article.

Performance standards” (or “indicators” for those in DoD) are the criteria used to evaluate or rate elements.  In other words, standards tell the employee how, how accurately, how often, or how quickly s/he must work to achieve an “Outstanding”, “Fully Successful”, or other designated rating in an element.  In most agencies today, there are five standards for every element.

Safety, security, and EEO

As the business of appraisal becomes more important, there needs to be more discussion of appraisal techniques that work and those which fail to distinguish terrific employees from also-rans.  Among many matters begging attention are the critical elements in which civil servants are to be rated.  What are the implications of evaluating someone in a category titled “Security”, or “Safety”, or “Equal Employment Opportunity”?

These are three areas where mistakes can prove costly – both in terms of an agency’s budget and reputation.  Because of this, government executives and managers often insist that all employees be rated in any or all of these aspects of work.  While it makes sense to give these programs the greatest possible visibility, insisting on such critical elements may do little to improve matters, and much to undermine the credibility of appraisals.

Problems when perfection is the norm

Those who are closely involved with EEO, safety, security, and other such program areas know these are matters where compliance is the primary objective.  In essence, each has rules.  Security, safety, and EEO rules are disseminated to employees (I remember periodic Dept. of the Navy briefings) and workers are required to follow them or suffer the consequences.  Ironically, if management insists any of these important aspects of Federal employment is made critical elements, absurd performance standards are bound to result.

As an example, consider an agency that is currently demanding a mandatory element to rate all employees in “Computer Security”.  Experience dictates that problems are bound to result – both above and below the midpoint (or “Fully Successful”) level.  This is because a basic passing rating in security is 100% compliance.  It’s not like you pass if you don’t secure your laptop only 2-3% of the time!  Perfection is normal and expected.   There is no “Marginal” performance when it comes to security – especially when you realize that there remains an “Unacceptable” level below that.

By the same token, looking at the upper end of the appraisal spectrum (remember, there are five levels) how can a blue collar employee be better than perfect in security?  After all, in five-level systems, there are two levels above satisfactory (or “Valued Performer” in the NSPS world).  Isn’t assiduously following the rules and complying day-in and day-out enough?  And isn’t assiduously following the rules expected of every employee… every day?

Being better than perfect

Years ago, I saw “Outstanding” standards for a “Safety” element that read, “Makes significant contributions to the overall safety program.”  Huh?  At a Naval shipyard, we had hundreds of Machinists, Pipefitters, Electricians, etc.  Few, if any, were going to make contributions to a safety program that had been designed, revised, and perfected by experts… over decades!  Fewer still would imagine “significant” improvements.

Such notions of creativity fail two common sense tests.  The first is the pragmatic (or smell) test.  Do they really want hundreds of employees suggesting improvements to that program or were they just finding a way to raise the bar?  Who will field these ideas and/or evaluate them?  How will they decide which ideas warrant higher ratings?

And then there’s the “Einstein test”.  If a blue collar employee were to suggest a significant contribution to the safety program, what are the odds he could do so again next rating cycle?  Imagine if the scientific community had responded to Einstein’s revelation that e = mc2 with, “So Albert, what do you plan to come up with next year?”

If an employee is innovative, reward her.  Not all rewards have to be joined to annual appraisals.  Furthermore, asking for creativity isn’t always in management’s interests.  When an employee comes up with a great new idea, it’s a gift.  To demand such a gift for what in school was an “A” (90-100% in my school) seems over the top for most jobs.

Keeping appraisals off of disciplinary turf

From an employee’s vantage point, the objective is to follow the security, safety, and EEO rules.  You had better be ill when calling in sick and stay off of pornographic websites.  There’s no commendation for perfection in such areas.  It’s expected of us all.  Moreover, if an employee violates safety rules or regulations he should be dealt with swiftly and decisively.  Performance appraisal can’t do that.  Discipline can.

When we think back to school days, failing to study for a test or finish our homework might result in a lower grade.  Cutting class or copying from the encyclopedia led to the principal’s office.  So it is in Federal human resources.  There are two different systems for addressing two different problems.

Appraisal is intended to evaluate achievement over time.  When taking math, science, languages and music classes, people can achieve to different levels based on their effort and god-given talents.  Like summer school, the PIP is designed to help those who “don’t get it”.

By contrast, discipline represents an immediate response to a specific incident or series of incidents.  It shouldn’t wait.  Like speeding tickets, it is intended to separate rule-breakers from those who comply and is used in cases where a PIP would be impractical, if not futile.

When the rules are broken

An employee was caught in an eye-hazardous area without proper protection.  Another left classified documents out on her desk overnight.  A third told a told a coworker he thought she did her job better when she wore short skirts to work.  If any of these is caught or reported, disciplinary action should ensue.  (And the quicker the better – just as with children and dogs.)

Supervisors shouldn’t have to count how many times they’ve done such things or wait ‘til the end of a rating cycle to deal with it.  Likewise, if you daughter starts crossing the street without checking for oncoming traffic, don’t make a note of it in order to adjust next year’s allowance.  Use discipline.  It’s more immediate and emphasizes that rules demand compliance at all times.  …and remember, it needn’t be severe to be effective.

What appraisal is… and isn’t

Critical elements that attempt to rate employees in safety, security and EEO won’t work for non-supervisors.  Either folks play by the established rules (which is no particular distinction) or they’re in trouble.  Few, if any of us, are outstanding in any of these areas.

Moreover, one hesitates to think of the employee who loses a finger (or, even worse, causes someone else’s finger to get mangled) being given a 60 or 90-day “PIP” (performance improvement plan).  It’s absurd.  Leave such programs to good training and disciplinary enforcement.

The foregoing discussion, however, does not mean to imply that supervisors, managers, and specialists in these areas can’t be rated in those program areas.  They have the responsibility to understand and promulgate the rules, keep employees informed, and to discipline (mildly or severely – depending on the infraction) on those who fail to comply.  Their levels of activity and commitment can be rated.  The standards aren’t easy to develop, but it’s doable.  I hope to write an article on that topic in weeks to come.

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 trainingfeds.com.