How HR Should View ‘Critical Elements’

The author says that performance appraisals should serve to improve performance rather than just rate it.

A horizon beyond compliance

My orientation in writing this article about critical elements comes from a perspective many Feds may find mystifying.  I believe appraisals should serve to improve performance, not just rate it.

Most who work in human resources know that the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations demand we evaluate employee performance using “critical elements” and “performance standards”.  Very few, however, view appraisals as more than a necessary evil.

As mentioned in an earlier article this compliance-only view of appraisals has resulted in a paucity of expertise in evaluations and some costly mistakes.  Most in my field of labor/employee relations have little training or interest in this area that has confounded and vexed us for decades.  I have often referred to the appraisal program as the “third rail of HR”.

Over the three decades since critical elements and performance standards arrived on the Federal landscape, I’ve seen our appraisal system used as a prop for those advocating “Management by Objectives”; believers in “Total Quality Management”; peddlers of “Balanced Scorecards”; and those who are possessed by goals, objectives and strategic plans.  Executives and consultants see elements and standards as a medium for advertising the latest fads in management.

Elements, standards, and report cards

Performance appraisals continue to interest me in part because they remind me of “report cards” of my youth and early adulthood.  I wonder what net value they offer us as working adults.  In other words, I believe that critical elements and standards should generate sufficient benefits to offset the meager costs (two conversations a year and a minimal amount of HR support/expertise) associated with the program.

Ratings, bell curves, and awards are of less interest to me than using elements and standards to improve individual performance – showing people how (and leading them to) become better at what they do.  This begins with an understanding what elements and standards are… and are not.  Critical elements are what we rate.  Performance standards are the yardsticks by which elements are rated.

Comparing the government’s system to that used in school, elements equate to the subjects we were taking that year/semester, while standards were the measures our teachers (now supervisors) used to determine our grades.  In my day, English, Math, Science, History, and Spanish were “major” subjects (now “critical” elements).  They would be graded by standards connected to tests, homework, papers, etc.

“Non-critical” elements back in school might have been music or physical education.  As many agencies now realize, they are an oxymoron in the adult workplace.  Some, like the Department of Agriculture, have complicated rating schemes (each element is rated at three levels but the overall rating scheme has five tiers) that require non-critical elements.  Such a requirement reflects a symptom of systemic problems that need fixing.

Generics in, garbage out

Over the past few years, many Federal agencies have moved toward generic elements.  Their belief is that a common set of elements will ensure fairness, reduce conflicts and ensure local management doesn’t use differing elements for common positions.  In doing so, however, HR policymakers are also ensuring that appraisal criteria (elements and standards) will not be used to motivate employees.  Generic elements lead to generic perspectives of employee performance and subjective evaluations.  It’s that simple.

Here’s how generics fail us.  “Getting Along With Others” and “Teamwork” are essential to the success in any Federal agency.  As critical elements, however, they invariably lead to generic, subjective performance standards.  Here is the Fully Successful standard written for such an element by an agency client of mine:

“Actively contributes to the accomplishment of organizational and team goals, including adapting to shifts in work priorities.  Shares information freely across levels and functions.”

The element and standard are required for all employees.  Not only is there is no information as to how one exceeds or fails, such stuff is useless at best.  A generic element has led to a generic standard.  This will lead to subjective ratings anchored in the vaguest of impressions.  The construct does not motivate anyone.  More likely, it will engender perceptions of bias and manipulation.

The competence game

The agency in question professes to rate their employees in “competencies”.  Other agencies have followed a similar route.  Competencies are the talents and abilities we need to qualify for, and succeed in, a job or line of work.  If you have a gift for seeing how mechanical objects work, certain careers are more likely to fit you competency.  Likewise, if you’re lousy at memorization, a slew of careers are ill-suited due to your lacking this competency.

These competencies (a term that came into vogue in HR circles about 15 years ago) are not easily graded in an A – F type of system.  It’s like grading a high school student in reading.  A teacher may see the student does or doesn’t possess that competency, but can’t easily grade or rate it in a tiered system without sophisticated testing.  Furthermore, that competency is not likely to change from year to year.  Individual appraisals should focus on achievements rather than competencies.

Like generics, competency-based elements lead to subjective, “weasel-worded” standards despite professed commitments to objectivity, results, continuous improvement, etc.  Supervisors and managers do the best they can, but they know their ratings are based on impressions.

Evaluating fractions

On yet another front HR should consider, the idea of dividing a critical element into “sub-elements” (a, b, c, etc.) presents problems that complement generics, but from an opposite direction.  Here, HR (or others who call the shots in an agency) find that 3-7 critical elements aren’t enough.  In using sub-elements, management attempts to evaluate every dimension of every element.  Measures are added to other measures (whether objective or subjective) in an attempt to evaluate an employee’s performance in the most thorough way possible.

In a system of critical elements and performance standards, however, the notion of a sub-element is difficult to implement.  By analogy, grading a student in sub-elements might divide “American History” into: 1) Wars; 2) Leaders; 3) Economics; 4) Social Movements; etc.  Can’t we just rate American History (the broader critical element) and leave it at that?

Sub-elements create a dilemma for raters as well.  What happens if I’m an A student in Wars and Social Movements, a B in Leaders, and a D in Economics?  How am I to be graded in the overall subject (or critical element) of American History?  Directives are often silent putting management at the mercy of third parties like the MSPB or EEOC.

I recently worked with an agency that has six specific measures in one of the three sub-elements that comprise Critical Element #1.  (It was hard for me and their managers just to understand this construct which was handed down from HR.)  I asked what happens if an employee fails one of the six measures but not the other five.  According to law and regulation, failing a critical element results in a performance improvement plan and possible removal.  They weren’t sure as to the answer, and their agency directive wasn’t clear.

I pointed out to them (HR didn’t attend the seminar) that failing one of six metrics, in one of three sub-elements, is tantamount to failing one-eighteenth of the critical element.  If a sub-element’s standard contains six adjectival descriptions (most performance standards consist of “weasel words” rather than specific measures), the level of ambiguity would be even greater.  While sub-elements attempt to illuminate, using them often leaves supervisors and employees in the dark.

Keep it simple… HR

The final issue relating to elements that I’ll address here is what I refer to as a “foam-at-the-mouth-element”.  On these appraisal forms, HR advises management not only to tell the employee what will be rated, but also the skills, talents, tenacity, patience, teamwork, service, and intelligence needed to perform it.  The critical element runs on for 5-10 lines of prose.

I want to remind those in HR who work with appraisals that element just tell employees what will be rated.  The finest line we need to draw when committing them to paper is something like, “Negotiations – including team identification, training, research, ground rules, proposal development, bargaining, documentation, consulting with higher echelons, etc.”  In my estimation, that’s a long one.  Adding long sections from the PD to an element is unnecessary.  It doesn’t impress anyone.

A call for job-related critical elements

Back when I was a Labor Relations Specialist with the Department of the Navy, I had just three critical elements:

  1. Negotiating (with union officials);
  2. Preparing and Presenting Cases (to be heard by third parties); and
  3. Providing Guidance and Advice (to supervisors, managers, and others).

That’s what I was paid to do.  It’s sensible to rate employees in those areas you are paying them to master.

The elements for a Senior Executive should be different from those of a Claims Representative.  The executive is best evaluated in broad organizational categories.  The employee is most effectively evaluated in specific job-related elements like Interviewing, Documenting Case Files, Eligibility Determinations, etc).  The Executive’s effectiveness will profit more by getting Claims Reps to focus on such job-related elements than by their memorizing organizational goals and insisting that their critical elements be tied to them.

If appraisals are to help employees move from good to better to best, critical elements that promote agency-level goals like those associated with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) are of little use.  Consultants who can spout buzz words like artesian wells of wisdom will advise you to the contrary.  I strongly suggest, however, focusing on what employees do day-in and day-out rather than lofty departmental ambitions.

A simple process leads to better elements

If we who work in human resources/capital can imagine appraisals that go beyond mere compliance, then critical elements should be tied to what that individual is paid to do.  This can happen by using the following process:

  1. List the duties contained in the PD (leaving factor evaluation statements out of it);
  2. Add important duties that are not memorialized in the PD;
  3. Review the list and put it out of sight – don’t peek;
  4. Guess a set of broad critical elements;
  5. Compare your elements to the original list, see which duties migrate to which elements, and edit your until you have a set of elements important enough to rate.

And all of these elements will be “critical” when applying to the definition contained in 5 CFR 430.203.  A Federally-employed Nurse’s elements will once again relate to nursing, while an Engineer’s will reflect engineering. Employees will see that what’s to be evaluated is what they do every day.  Some jobs may work out five critical elements and others to three.  Such conclusions are considered “Management Rights” by the courts, so that’s just how the chips fall.

Once this simple process is finished, attention turns to performance standards.  Stay tuned for an article addressing that (much more complex subject) 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