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What to Avoid When Writing Standards

This article defines "retention" standards, discusses the basic requirements for these standards, and highlights some of the things you should avoid when writing them.

Retention Standards

By "retention" standard, we mean the standard that describes the level of performance necessary to be retained in a job (i.e., the standard written for performance one level above the Unacceptable level). In appraisal programs that do not have a Minimally Successful or equivalent level available for appraising elements, the retention standard is the Fully Successful standard. In all other appraisal programs, the retention standard is the Minimally Successful or equivalent standard.

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the courts have issued many decisions on the topic of appropriate performance standards. This article highlights two major errors to avoid in writing standards. Agencies must ensure that "retention" standards:

  • are not impermissibly absolute (i.e., allow for no error); and
  • inform the employee of the level of performance needed to retain his or her job.

Avoid Absolute Retention Standards

An "absolute" retention standard - one that allows for no errors - is acceptable only in very limited circumstances. When a single failure to perform under a critical element could result in loss of life, injury, breach of national security, or great monetary loss, an agency can legitimately defend its decision to require perfection from its employees. In other circumstances, the MSPB and the courts usually will find that the agency abused its discretion by establishing retention standards that allow for no margin of error.

When writing standards, you should avoid the appearance of requiring perfection at the retention level. In appraisal programs that do not appraise elements at the Minimally Successful or equivalent level, you must word carefully the Fully Successful or equivalent standards so that they are not absolute. For example, the following Fully Successful standards would be considered absolute retention standards if they were used by agencies in a two-level appraisal program:

  • Work is timely, efficient, and of good quality.
  • Communicates effectively within and outside of the organization.

These standards are considered absolute because they appear to require that work is always timely, efficient, and of acceptable quality, or that the employee always communicates effectively. When writing standards - especially retention standards - avoid simply listing tasks without describing the regularity of the occurrence of the task, but also avoid the requirement to do it always.

In the examples listed above, some minor editing could resolve the problem:

  • With few exceptions, work is timely, efficient, and of good quality.
  • On a routine basis, communicates effectively within and outside of the organization.

To help determine whether you are writing an absolute standard, ask yourself:

  • How many times may the employee fail this requirement and still be acceptable?
  • Does the retention standard use words such as "all," "never," and "each"? (These words do not automatically create an absolute standard, but they often alert you to problems.)
  • If the retention standard allows for no errors, would it be valid according to the criteria listed above (risk of death, injury, etc.)?

Avoid "Backward" Standards

The law requires that an employee understand the level of performance needed for retention in the position. When using a "minimally successful" level of performance, there is often a tendency to describe it in terms of work that doesn't get done instead of what must be done to meet the retention standard. Describing negative performance fails to meet the requirements of the law. Standards such as "fails to meet deadlines" or "performs work inaccurately" allow an employee to do virtually no work or to do it poorly and still meet the retention standard. These "backward" retention standards are considered inappropriate and should be completely rewritten.

To help you determine whether you are writing a backward retention standard, ask:

  • Does the standard express the level of work the supervisor wants to see or does it describe negative performance? (Example of backward standard: Requires assistance more than 50% of the time.)
  • If the employee did nothing, would he/she meet the standard, as written? (Example of backward standard: Completes fewer than four products per year.)

The problems that absolute or backward retention standards cause rarely surface until it's too late. To avoid problems, it is worth taking the time when first developing the retention standards to ensure they are not absolute or backward.

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