The Best Performance Appraisal Advice I Ever Borrowed (Part II)

The author provides performance appraisal advice based on a document developed by the EPA for its managers.

In part one, I introduced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informal performance discussion guide and provided some analysis of its key provisions. I will continue that process here. In the previous article, I acknowledged a major debt to the developers of the guide, but noted that I had not been able to identify them. Thanks to Brian Twillman, Training Officer with EPA’s Office of the Administrator (AO), that mystery has been solved.

Brian advises me that the guide was developed in 2002 by a workgroup led by Betsy Shaw and Anna Raymond “to promote meaningful dialogue between AO employees and supervisors about performance and career development.” The workgroup, which was made up of executives, front-line supervisors, employees, and union representatives, included Diane Bazzle, Shelley Levitt, Timothy Epp, Leon Hampton, Anne Randolph, Jacqueline Rose, Selwyn Cox, and the late Brenda Collington. Brian says that the guide, which was revised in December 2007 primarily to reflect some changes in agency terminology, “is now part of the Agency’s guidance to managers, supervisors, and employees on providing feedback under the Performance Appraisal and Recognition System (PARS).”

Brian notes that the guide and other products developed in conjunction with the AO’s Quality of Work Life Initiative Survey have “established higher levels of trust and credibility in the performance management (looking to the future) and the performance appraisal (looking at the past) processes.” While the guide was developed for EPA’s use, I think that supervisors and employees in any agency can benefit from applying its principles. And it has certainly been a major boon to my credibility as a performance management trainer! If I were a better person, I’d share my training fees with all of the folks noted above, but, since I’m not, I hope they will accept my sincere thanks for producing a document of exceptional value.

Since the first article appeared in, publisher/editor Ralph Smith and I have been asked by many readers for copies of the guide, as have Brian and his EPA colleagues. Accordingly, Ralph has made the guide available for downloading on, and Brian has offered to serve as EPA’s point of contact for any questions about the guide. His phone number is 202 564-5948.

What Are The Elements Of Good Communication?

Good communications – regular and candid communication between staff and managers – is the key to a performance evaluation system that holds no surprises for anyone at mid-year and end-of-year evaluations.

Communication provides a vehicle for continuous feedback on staff’s strengths (and) weaknesses, and guidance on projects and responsibilities.

Active listening is imperative in a successful performance evaluation and feedback system.

When an employee is surprised by getting a lower rating than he/she felt was coming, it often means there has been miscommunication, or a lack of communication, between the supervisor and the employee on performance, and the “surprise” could lead to a grievance and/or complaint, and a deterioration in the working relationship. The worthy objective of “no surprises” during mid-year and end-of-year evaluations can best be achieved, as the guide says, by “regular and candid communication between staff and managers” and by providing “continuous feedback.” on performance.

Examples of Effective Feedback Techniques

Examples of Effective Feedback Techniques







“When you…”


State specific facts of behavior (non-judgmental)


When you do not attend staff meeting like you did today and last week…


“I’m concerned…”


Describe how behavior affected you or the office.


I get concerned…


“Because I…”


State why the observed behavior affected you in this way.


Because I value your contributions. You play an important role in this office accomplishing its goals.


Pause and listen for response (Ask if other person has ideas about what to do)


Give the other person an opportunity to respond.




“I would like…”


Describe what change you want other person to consider.


I would like you to consider planning your schedule so that you can attend meetings or calling in advance if there is an important reason for the meeting to be rescheduled.




State why change is needed.


Because you are a valuable member of our team and we miss your input when you are not here.


“What do you think…”


Listen to response. Discuss and compromise on a solution, if necessary.


One way to ensure that both our needs are met is to…


Analysis: I think these examples of effective feedback techniques give supervisors very good advice on what kinds of questions to ask, how to ask them, and why. They are designed to engage the employee as an active participant in the discussion.

Questions for Managers to Ask Employees

A manager’s goal in starting a performance evaluation or feedback conversation is to create trust and put the employee at ease. Discretion and judgment must be used in determining which of the questions below are appropriate for a particular feedback session as well as their most appropriate order. It is recommended that you use the mid-year evaluation session to focus on career development of the employee.

Past Performance

1. Let me tell you some of the things I think you’ve done particularly well or as noted in your self-assessment (be specific), e.g.:

  • You take initiative, as in the XYZ project.
  • You identify and help solve problems.
  • You do a good job of keeping me and your colleagues informed.
  • You are willing to lead, take responsibility and be accountable.
  • You volunteer.
  • You properly credit other for their work.

2. Which of your accomplishments do you feel good about? Why?

3. What would you like to improve and why?

  • Here are some things I think you’ll want to improve. (Be specific.)
  • Describe your contributions to a team effort (if appropriate).
  • What did you enjoy about the team experience?
  • What did you dislike about the team experience and why?
  • What would your customers say about you?
  • When I spoke to some of your customers, whom you recommended I contact, their feedback indicated…

Connection of Work to Organizational Mission

  • Let’s talk about how your responsibilities support the organization’s mission. (Managers should be prepared to offer examples to clarify the relationship between the individual’s work and the organization’s mission.)
  • What ideas do you have for future projects that would further the organization’s mission?

Satisfaction with Work and Work Environment

  • How do you feel about the quality of assignments you have received?
  • Do you feel valued and respected by your peers and organization?
  • What ideas do you have for making this office a more enjoyable, healthier place to work?
  • What can I do to help you be more effective in your job?
  • What can we do to keep our communication effective and ongoing?
  • Do you feel able to strike a reasonable balanced between your work and home life?
  • Do you feel you have been adequately recognized and rewarded for your work?
  • Is there anything else you wish to discuss at this time?

Career Objectives

Let’s discuss your Individual Development Plan (IDP)…

  • What are your professional areas of interest and long-term career goals?
  • What training opportunities/rotational or work assignments might develop those areas?
  • Let’s discuss how your IDP reflects how you will pursue your goals.

Goals for Next Year

  • What would you like to accomplish in the coming year? (Encourage employees to be specific, and cover recommended areas of improvement.)
  • Can you describe how your future goals will support the mission of the organization?
  • Can you describe how your short-term goals will further your long-term professional goals?

Analysis: In my estimation, the approach outlined above is designed to make the performance appraisal process truly a collaborative one between a supervisor and an employee. It is highly likely to produce a dialogue between the two parties rather than one-way communication, i.e., from the supervisor to the employee.

Many agencies have issued guidance stating that performance management should be a collaborative effort between supervisors and employees, but I hear regularly from employees (and from some supervisors as well) who say that isn’t consistent with their personal experience. A recurring theme is that employees receive their performance plan (critical elements and performance standards) at the beginning of the rating period with little or no discussion or opportunity for input, then . They go on to state that they receive little, if any, performance feedback during the rating period – sometimes not even during the mid-year review, if one is conducted. As more and more agencies implement performance management systems that strongly encourage employee participation, agency management will have to live up to the expectations of collaboration that it is they are promoting or employees will likely see the system as fatally flawed and give it no more than lip service, if that.

There is nothing “magic” about the questions suggested for managers to ask staff, and supervisors can obviously modify this list as they deem appropriate, but what the guide does provide is a “blueprint” a supervisor can use to help prepare for and conduct performance appraisal discussions. In my experience as a supervisor, I found that having a “script” helped me keep the performance discussions effective and on track.

Questions for Employees to Ask Managers

Staff can assist in assuring they receive constructive feedback by asking questions their managers might not. Again, judgment must be exercised in determining which questions are relevant and appropriate for particular situations. These questions can be explored in less formal communications throughout the year as well as during both the mid-year and end-of-year reviews.

Past Performance

  • What do you think I have done well? Why?
  • Here are things I think I have done particularly well…
  • What do you think I need to improve on and why?
  • What do my customers say about me?
  • I’d like to tell you about my experience working on teams…

Connection of Work to Organizational Mission

  • Do you think my current responsibilities support the organization’s mission? If not, how can my responsibilities better support the organization’s mission?
  • Here are my ideas for future projects that I believe would help fulfill the organization’s mission…

Satisfaction with Work and Work Environment

  • I’d like to talk about the quality of the assignments I feel I’ve been receiving…
  • I’d like to discuss my sense of how I am valued and respected by my peers and this organization…
  • You could help me be more effective by…
  • Here’s what I’d like to do to keep our communication effective and ongoing…
  • Here are some ideas I have for making this office a more enjoyable, healthier place to work… What do you think of them?…
  • I’d like to talk about the recognition I’ve received for my work…

Career Objectives

Let’s discuss my Individual Development Plan (IDP)

  • Here are areas of interest and long-term professional goals…
  • What training opportunities/rotational or work assignments do you believe have to potential to develop those areas?
  • What are your ideas on how I can improve my IDP goals and how I can pursue those goals effectively?

Goals for Next Year

  • Here’s what I would like to accomplish in the coming year…
  • Here’s how I think these goals will help me develop and help the organization…
  • What do you think of these goals?

Analysis: This section of the guide is obviously the other side of the coin, in that it provides tips to employees on how to prepare for performance discussions with their supervisors. As noted earlier, many agencies are pushing the concept of employee participation throughout the performance management process, so I think this is a great opportunity for employees to test that concept. As I see it, employees who are fully prepared to collaborate with their supervisors in the performance discussion process have nothing to lose and potentially a great deal to gain.

Concluding Thoughts

I believe that if supervisors and employees can talk candidly and comfortably about an issue as emotion-laden as performance, they can probably have productive conversations about a variety of other work-related issues. I think that the EPA informal performance discussion guide is a great tool for both supervisors and employees to use in preparing for and conducting effective performance discussions.

I would be very much interested in receiving feedback from readers as to the value of the guide and about their own experiences, positive or negative, and suggestions – in the whole arena of performance management, from the development of individual performance plans to the final rating.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.