Performance Appraisals and the Fog of Jargon

The author explains how an MSPB decision highlights how an agency overcomplicated its performance appraisal system to its own detriment.

It may just be coincidence, but following a recent visit to the dentist for a root canal I’ve been thinking about performance appraisals. This is appraisal season for most of Uncle Sam’s workforce. Many are being racked and stacked with ratings, while others (mostly in DoD) are working through mid-year reviews. It’s a time for exhuming forms of stunning length, endless management platitudes, and complexities that can rival tax returns. 

It is easy for me and others to find fault with the government’s appraisal system. It has been a mess for more than 40 years. As etched into the HR tablets known as Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, Executive Branch employees must be evaluated against critical elements and performance standards. 

The statutory implementation date of this system was October 1, 1981. Back then, I was responsible for training hundreds of supervisors, managers and union officials in the new requirements. I then helped supervisors compose performance plans for ~8,500 Navy civilian employees. I was just a GS-9 at the time, which reflected the interest folks in HR had regarding the subject of appraisals.

An HR orphan

The law remains unchanged since those days and the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) hasn’t been modified to any appreciable extent. Individual agencies, however, have changed their systems considerably over the ensuing 4 decades. Most conspicuously, the insertion of language relating to “goals”, “objectives”, “competencies”, “contributing factors”, “alignment”, etc. has become prolific.

Over the years, layer after layer of organizational theory terms and content have been tossed into this HR system resulting appraisal forms that print into a dozen or more pages. This fluff is more rhetorical than substantive. Realizing that every employee is given a performance plan, management has again and again inserted its latest terminology into performance appraisal forms and directives. Allowing these terms and distractions from the real business of evaluating job performance reflects a lack of interest and expertise regarding appraisals. 

Most HR folks know very little about evaluations… and most like it that way. The importance of this program is commonly reduced to completing the form correctly and meeting due dates – essentially clerical functions. The actual content of elements and standards isn’t well understood. Most of the advice offered up in this regard (such a SMART performance standards) is downright silly.

Your agency’s HR office has specialists with genuine expertise in hiring, firing, injury compensation, retirement, etc. There are only a handful of specialists across the entire federal landscape with a professional interest regarding appraisals. It is, however, the only HR program that touches every employee, every year.

A telling decision from the MSPB

The above leads me to a case recently decided by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). In Pridgen v. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a GS-15 employee was removed for unacceptable performance over a decade ago. Her appeal of an administrative judge’s decision lay dormant during a 5-year period during which the MSPB lacked a quorum. 

The administrative judge’s decision was in favor of OMB. The Board both reversed and remanded that decision back to the judge. This MSPB decision is exceptionally long due in part to Ms. Pridgen’s allegations of discrimination and retaliation in several categories. Additionally, the new Board members seem to be instructing agencies and their own administrative judges on how such allegations should be decided not only for Ms. Pridgen, but also in cases to come. 

Goals and core competencies

The Pridgen decision reminds us that law and CFR require agencies to construct a system of critical elements and performance standards. Elements are what aspects of a job management chooses to rate. Standards are what employees must do or accomplish to earn a given rating. It’s that simple.

The OMB apparently got creative with their terms. “Core competencies” and “goals” were to be rated instead of critical elements. Why? I can only guess that someone with little knowledge of appraisals was allowed to tinker with their directive and forms. Over time I’ve seen “contributions”, “benchmarks”, “non-critical elements”, “objectives”, “values” and similar terms that don’t match up to law and regulation.

Whether Ms. Pridgen’s job performance was actually unacceptable or not, her supervisor back in 2013 put her on a performance improvement plan (PIP). No doubt, that supervisor was advised by OMB’s HR office. Her PIP spoke to specific “strategic goals” associated with one of four “core competencies”. These terms aren’t readily understandable to mere mortals. They were apparently employed to substitute for “critical elements” in some fashion.

The CFR states clearly that failing a single critical element after an “opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance” (or PIP in common parlance) can result in removal. As best I read the Board’s decision to reverse Ms. Pridgen’s removal, there were several “goals” associated with each “core competency” in the appellant’s performance plan. When the board tried to apply decades-old law and regulations to OMB’s assessment of Ms. Pridgen’s failure to meet strategic goals, they could not translate her shortcomings as having failed a “critical element”. 

OMB may think this loss was due to a technicality. If so, it’s a technicality that could have been avoided. The agency complicated the terms and content of its appraisal system to the point that they’re own HR people (who must have advised management) couldn’t construe what it meant to fail a critical element, which is required to win a case.

Back to basics

Rather than core competencies and strategic goals, I urge readers and their agencies to consider critical elements as intended. As a Labor Relations Specialist I had 3: 

  1. Negotiating with labor unions; 
  2. Presenting cases to judges and arbitrators: and 
  3. Providing guidance and advice to people who needed or wanted to know. 

These 3 elements reflected most of what I did for a living. They took up most of the relevant narrative in my position description. They reminded me of what the Navy paid me to do. What makes them critical elements is: if I were I doing fine in two of them but lousy at the third, I was failing at the job the Navy paid me to perform. After a chance to prove them wrong or “opportunity period” I could be fired.

As with most readers (thanks for getting this far!) I was better at some aspects of my job than others. My bosses understood this. What they rated were critical elements that reflected the work they assigned. Compared to what I’ve seen in recent years, our forms were simple and understandable.

As for goals, that’s the stuff of performance standards rather than elements. As the Office of Personnel Management put it, “Performance elements tell employees what they have to do and standards tell them how well they have to do it.” Pretty succinct. If you have individual goals (and most Feds don’t), save ‘em for the standards. OMB apparently mixed the two.

Stepping back

Performance evaluations are intended to address a very basic question, “How am I doing?” Nothing loftier than that. In my very large personnel office, everyone knew that our ratings were subjective. We knew that management shied away from unacceptable ratings while limiting the number of people rated at the highest level, lest they bust the budget for awards. 

Like the MSPB, I don’t know if Ms. Pridgen’s performance of important aspects of her job was truly unacceptable or if she was targeted in some way. I do know this was an expensive and embarrassing loss for her agency. If she was mistreated for being a whistleblower or a disabled person, she’s not alone in that regard. This Board decision doesn’t tell me enough to know that.

I can surmise, however, that this case will cost the OMB ~9 years of back pay and benefits at the GS-15 level. That compensation is due to their own lack of clarity. They should be thankful that Ms. Pridgen was not represented by counsel, lest attorney fees be added to the tab. She beat and agency whose middle name is Management!

Beyond her particular circumstances, the Pridgen case reminds us that a fog of management jargon has settled over the government’s appraisal program. That haze might begin to clear if agencies evaluate employees on critical elements which echo what they were hired to do. 

A shipyard Pipefitter’s critical elements can and should be different than those of a Park Service Ranger. When reading the basics in each of their position descriptions, supervisors can devise simple sets of job-specific elements quickly. If they also have competencies and goals, those don’t need to be included in their critical elements. Such overlays may lead to more decisions like Pridgen.

Over the course of a year, each employee may want some formal feedback as to how they’re doing in their jobs. Looking at sensible critical elements can help frame those discussions. Appraisals need be nothing more than that.

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