Anyone can write good performance standards. One does not need to be a good writer or to understand human resources technicalities or the science of performance management to come up with a standard that will pass scrutiny at the Merit Systems Protection Board. But writing standards is only part of the job. The secret to good performance management is what the manager does after the standard is written.
The law requires that performance standards be as objective as practicable. This is important because someone who fails a performance standard can be fired after failure on a performance improvement plan. But what does it mean to be as objective as practicable? This is a concern for most federal jobs that by their very nature require the exercise of subjectivity by the employee and a judgment by the supervisor about whether the employee is meeting a standard. There are few cookie-cutter federal jobs measurable by the number of produced widgets per pay period, and obtaining true objectivity is not only not practicable, it is not possible.
The first step is to consult the employee about what the employee thinks should be in a standard. If the employee is in a bargaining unit, the union should also be consulted. The manager should consider this input and use it when practicable to strengthen the standard. But the manager makes the final call. Once that is done, the employee should be informed of the standards early in the rating year.
Because pure objectivity can rarely be obtained, the supervisor should write the standards as clearly as possible, with an awareness that during the rating year, the employee will receive feedback about performance, both good and bad, that will give the standard content and make it valid. Without content or contextual feedback to an employee during the rating period, there is a good chance that the standard that describes expectations for a professional position will be too vague to pass muster. With feedback concerning how the standard relates to the employee’s day-to-day performance, MSPB will most likely find that an otherwise impermissibly vague standard is valid.
For example, assume that a standard is: Prepares well-written reports that require minimal revision and address most relevant issues. A supervisor who issues such a standard and then has no interaction with an employee about the quality of reports has prepared an invalid, vague standard and will have difficulty winning an adverse action case at the MSPB against a poorly performing employee.
On the other hand, the supervisor who provides clear instructions about what should be in a report when the assignment is issued, provides feedback about the report in the form of an e-mail, memo or notes in the margin and who has opened lines of communication to answer an employee’s questions about a work assignment has given content to the standard and has made it valid.
In other words, supervisors should do their jobs fully, interact with employees about expectations, tell employees when and how they have fallen short and, most important from the perspective of HR specialists and lawyers, keep a record of that interaction.
It is the giving of content to a standard that is most important, not the precision of words in the performance plan. But both must exist and they should work together to put an employee on notice of what performance is expected and when that performance expectation is not being met.
One final word of caution in writing good performance standards is to avoid using negative language to describe acceptable performance. Remember, acceptable performance is that minimum level of performance that an employee must achieve to keep his or her job. Some agencies have a minimally successful level of performance that is not a coveted rating, since it can be the basis for the denial of a within grade increase. But, it does describe acceptable performance, and if it is written in a negative way, it could be found invalid. This is one of the counterintuitive aspects of writing performance standards. Many agencies have avoided the legal difficulty by eliminating minimally successful ratings or by describing unsuccessful and fully successful performance and then stating that minimally successful is in between.