The First Commandment of Performance Appraisal

The author discusses performance standards and what he believes is a fundamental law of performance evaluations and the most common reason appraisals have failed in the past.

In my most recent article, I addressed the subject of critical elements.  These are the rating categories used in performance evaluation systems.  I pointed out how generic elements and elements that presume to rate competencies inevitably lead to subjective standards and ratings.  Such evaluations do not serve to improve performance and, therefore, are of no particular benefit to the agencies using them.  Moreover, rating these elements often leads to allegations of bias and favoritism.

In this article I want to discuss performance standards – the measures used to evaluate each critical element.  In doing so, readers can discover what I believe is a fundamental law of performance evaluations and the most common reason appraisals have failed us over decades.

Law, regulations, and generics

Standards are often referred to as “measures” or “yardsticks”.  They inform employees of the expectations to be met in a given element.  Our Office of Personnel Management (OPM) oversees the government’s performance appraisal system.  In the Code of Federal Regulations (5 CFR 430.203), they define performance standards as follows:

Performance standard means the management-approved expression of the performance threshold(s), requirement(s), or expectation(s) that must be met to be appraised at a particular level of performance. A performance standard may include, but is not limited to, quality, quantity, timeliness, and manner of performance.

The idea was to have individually written performance standards (or expectations) for each critical element.  This challenges managers to come up with specific measures for specific jobs under their leadership.  In fact, the law itself (5 USC 4302) reads, in part:

Under regulations which the Office of Personnel Management shall prescribe, each performance appraisal system shall provide for establishing performance standards which will, to the maximum extent feasible, permit the accurate evaluation of job performance on the basis of objective criteria (which may include the extent of courtesy demonstrated to the public) related to the job in question for each employee or position under the system…

This isn’t happening in most Federal agencies.  Many HR departments have devised “generic” or “benchmark” standards for rating purposes.  Their intent is to relieve supervisors of the chore of defining successful performance.  They also believe that providing everyone with the same rating elements and standards gives an appearance of fairness and equity… despite the legal mandate for objectivity.

Benchmarks and guesswork

Pre-written performance standards are intentionally vague so that they can be used by any supervisor for any critical element and any job government job – from Fork Lift Operators to Research Scientists.  Such “canned” standards inevitably lead to subjective ratings, which might have been the same had there been nothing at all in writing.

Most of the supervisors and managers I meet (from State, Navy, Agriculture, Interior, Army, etc.) are trying to rate their workforce fairly and accurately.  Despite good intentions, however, their ratings are based only on anecdotal evidence… and little of that in most cases.  The generic benchmarks encourage subjective evaluations.  Some agencies attempt to describe high, middle, and low levels of achievement; however, the language they use must be interpreted and applied by supervisors who are often baffled by it.

Standards as they were meant to be

In seminars, I ask managers, who are required to develop their own standards or supplement the generics with their own criteria, to consider the first three techniques offered up by OPM in the Code of Federal Regulations – quality, quantity, and timeliness.  These are the traditional outcome-based measures of performance that senior managers, consultants, and HR specialists continue to advocate.

I ask seminar participants (and now you) to think of all the ways a real supervisor would actually know if an employee is delivering quality, quantity and/or timeliness.  Examples of performance measurement techniques they suggest are:  supervisory inspection/observation; customer feedback; coworker feedback; review of logs; and returns/rework.  Of course there are more.

Take another moment to consider ways a supervisor could know if you or another employee is delivering results – quality, quantity and/or timeliness.  This is what management is supposed to do to have objective appraisals.

Note to HR specialists:  Something becomes noticeable during the course of this exercise – perhaps for the first time.  Quantity of work performed may prove utterly unreliable as a measure.  As managers try to come up with real-world measures for quantity, they commonly give up.

Quantity usually depends on external factors such as what other jobs are being assigned to the employee, how many requests for work come through the door or across an employee’s desk.  Moreover, different assignments have different levels of complexity.  This makes quantity measures particularly unreliable.

There is also the obvious connection between the quantity of work performed and the time it takes to perform it… and the more quantity and timeliness are stressed, the worse quality is likely to be.  As the old saying goes, “The faster I work, the behinder I get.”  Measuring outcomes has many implications that need to be considered by those who develop performance standards.

…and now, the Commandment

Beyond the obvious problems with performance measurement, there is this one:  every technique or idea you might imagine for assessing quality, quantity, and/or timeliness leads to a significant workload for the front-line supervisor.  When evaluating results using any of these measures, s/he must regularly observe and log individual performance throughout the year.  What’s more, records must be kept on each individual supervised… in each critical element.

This understanding leads to the First Commandment of Performance Appraisal:  If thou attemptest to rate employees in terms of Quality, Quantity, and/or Timeliness thou shalt use metrics that require thee to observe, log, and keep book for every employee – in every critical element.

Supervisors who lack elaborate reporting software (such as that used in call centers) don’t like reading this.  The Commandment, however, doesn’t end there.  There’s a corollary which explains why agencies use benchmark and generic standards: If thou cannot or will not keep a bean count on individual employee performance in several critical elements, thou shalt rate thy employees subjectively.

Where metrics aren’t readily available, then a “beauty contest” is the inevitable result.  Some supervisors keep evaluation notes throughout the year.  Most don’t… nor do they have any memory of when the last rating year ended and this one began.  Ratings become guesswork.

Get real!  Get in GEAR!

Managers tell me that there aren’t enough hours left in a day to observe, log and keep individual records on each employee.  The say that time for evaluating employee performance comes after the meetings, “special projects”, and reports that government demands of them.  Moreover, they find “bean counting” (of deadlines met/missed, errors, etc.) demeaning and/or distasteful.  Most managers I meet question whether their agencies would actually benefit from such an investment of time and energy.

The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations is grappling with these issues with its GEAR model – now being piloted in several Federal agencies.  GEAR (Goals, Engagement, Accountability, and Results) is initially focusing on the infrastructure needed to rate workers in results.  This includes: regular supervisory feedback; holding supervisors accountable for making appraisals a priority; serious training in performance management; and reconsidering the selection process for new supervisors/managers.  I commend them for putting the horse in front of the cart, and wish them luck with such an ambitious undertaking.

It’s a Commandment – ‘fess up to it!

By my reckoning, if evaluations are to prove useful, the Commandment needs to be acknowledged by OPM, senior management, the National Council, and Chief Human Capital Officers who are responsible for making the law and regulations work.  For decades, front-line supervisors have on the receiving end of rhetoric regarding “results-oriented” and “objective” measures without sensing a commitment from those at the top to do so themselves.

Those who advocate for objective and results-oriented standards need to explain how and why supervisors and managers should adhere to the Commandment.  Those who have tried to quantify the work of Economists, Electricians, Biologists, and Law Enforcement Officers have been frustrated for years.  In some cases it seems as if senior management and HR are more focused on finding something to measure than on actual job performance.

Here’s the Commandment again: If thou attemptest to rate employees in terms of Quality, Quantity, and/or Timeliness thou shalt use metrics that require thee to observe, log, and keep book for every employee – in every critical element.  Now consider a sign that hung in Albert Einstein’s office in Princeton: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”  I think there’s wisdom there.

Subjectivity reigns

In light of the commandment, it might be better to simply acknowledge that employee performance ratings will commonly be subjective.  Where metrics are available and work to motivate, go ahead and use them.  Insisting on specific, objective, measurable, outcome-driven standards where such data is unlikely to be harvested puts too many supervisors in the awkward position of fudging.

The bond of trust between a supervisor and subordinate at the workplace (where submarines are repaired, veterans treated, forest fires suppressed, contracts examined, roads designed, and nuclear materials safeguarded) is paramount.  It is jeopardized when management fails to practice what is preached.  Insisting that metrics reign and performance ratings are science rather than art is one area where rhetoric and reality don’t match up.

Gathering data, analyzing results, and aiming for continuous improvement is a worthy endeavor.  As a management practice it can help all of us see where we are and where we want to go.  Metrics relating to quality, quantity, and timeliness are at the heart of most management philosophies like MBO, SQC, FTF, and TQM.  But the First Commandment of Performance Appraisals hasn’t been followed by managers in most agencies.  That’s why we see so many canned standards.

Offering up “benchmarks” and “generics”, while insisting on results-driven performance standards, isn’t fooling anyone.  It will take honest adults to recognize and acknowledge the contradiction. Perhaps the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations can help in this regard. A little candor might go a long way.

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