Make clear distinctions when rating high performers


A challenge for managers is drawing meaningful distinctions among high-performing employees when assigning performance ratings. Some employees are used to regular ratings of “outstanding” and are disappointed or insulted with anything less, even a good rating of “exceeds fully successful,” or whatever it is called in your agency. In some agencies, the default rating is “outstanding” and the culture is that an “exceeds” can be awarded only if something negative can be articulated or an area of improvement can mentioned in the performance appraisal. In these agencies, “fully successful” ratings are left for poor performers.

Rating inflation is inconsistent with decades of advice from the Office of Personnel Management. OPM advises that “fully successful” ratings are positive and mean the employee is doing a good job and everything expected. Higher ratings are supposed to be reserved for those who exceed expectations. “Outstanding” ratings are for that rare role model who truly stands out in a group of employees.

From a legal perspective, the difficulty with rating inflation is that employee accountability becomes harder. The more careful and honest the evaluator is, the greater the ease in addressing future issues. A manager should prepare now for an honest final performance rating later, usually in the fall or at the end of the year. Managing expectations is an important part of limiting employee unhappiness later. The first step is to make judgments that are consistent with the agency culture and the agency guidelines for evaluating performance. These guidelines should be reviewed and applied to each high-performing employee.

Some agencies define performance standards only at the “fully successful” level and then require an employee to exceed expectations on all elements for an “outstanding” and on a majority of elements for “exceeds.” Other agencies have different formulas or allow subjective judgments by supervisors. Still other agencies attempt to control rating inflation by defining performance expectations at every level and using terms such as “role model” or “rare” for “outstanding,” and “unusually high performer” for “exceeds.” Care in making fair distinctions and then communicating those distinctions can help both the manager and the employee understand the differences in rating high performers. If your agency defines performance only at the “fully successful” level, your conversation with your very good and much-appreciated employee who is strong in four of five elements and is doing all that is expected but not exceeding expectations in the remaining element should be positive and candid. It should address how the employee might be able to improve in the last element and be clear that the employee’s very good performance is at the “exceeds” level at midyear.

During the pay freeze, these distinctions are even more important. Step increases, quality step increases and performance awards are still available for most General Schedule employees, but both Congress and the administration will expect that these be controlled and scaled back. The occasional equal employment opportunity complaint from an employee who expects an “outstanding,” but receives an “exceeds” may become more of a reality, especially if an employee can point to a loss of money because of the lower rating. That EEO complaint is more likely to be given careful consideration in an agency where most employees receive “outstanding,” and “exceeds fully successful” is viewed as the bottom tier.

The bottom line for managers: Carefully assess performance, consider an “exceeds” to be a good rating and reserve “outstanding” for those few employees who deserve it. Performance management and employee accountability then becomes easier.


About Author

Debra Roth

Debra L. Roth is a partner at the law firm Shaw Bransford & Roth, a federal employment law firm in Washington, D.C. She is general counsel to the Senior Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association, host of the “FEDtalk” program on Federal News Radio, and a regular contributor to Federal News Radio’s “Federal Drive” morning show. Email your legal questions to

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