Skip to page navigation
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites. / Policy / Performance Management / Performance Management Cycle
Skip to main content

Differentiating Performance

Implementing FCAT-M Performance Management Competencies:
Differentiating Performance

Rating employee performance is one of the key components in the performance management process. Supervisors must develop and demonstrate the ability to make fair assessments of their subordinates' performance. According to the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM's) Federal Competency Assessment Tool - Management (FCAT- M), the assessments should be based on "observable behaviors, performance feedback, and demonstrated results." Supervisors must learn how to establish performance plans with measurable results that are conducive to differentiating performance.

Establish Performance Plans

First and foremost, supervisors need to become experts in establishing performance plans that allow them to make meaningful distinctions in levels of performance. They should ensure that the elements and standards established in the performance plan clearly explain what the employee needs to accomplish as well as how well the employee must accomplish it. The plan should align with the work unit's goals, which in turn align with other organizational goals, so that the employee understands how his/her performance impacts the agency's mission. Also, supervisors should encourage the employee to be involved in developing the performance plan, which helps the employee know what results are expected and strengthens commitment to achieve success.

According to Howard Risher and Charles H. Fay in the report, "Managing for Better Performance: Enhancing Federal Performance Management Practices," supervisors should "ensure that during planning discussions with employees, each individual understands what's expected, what it will take to be rated as outstanding, and what level of performance will be unacceptable." By clearly defining what is expected at different levels of performance, supervisors will be able to make distinctions in performance when rating employees at the end of the appraisal period.

Supervisors must establish performance standards that clearly express what is expected of the employee. Governmentwide regulations require performance standards written at the Fully Successful level for critical elements and allow them to be established at other levels. Supervisors must clearly define what is expected of fully successful performers and must follow any specific policies of their agency as they set performance standards. Generally, when establishing the Fully Successful standard supervisors should describe a range of acceptable performance (e.g., 3-5 articles are written). Performance that exceeds the top of that range would be appraised at a level above Fully Successful, and performance below the bottom of that range would be appraised at a level below Fully Successful (e.g., Minimally Successful or Unacceptable). Also, defining a level above Fully Successful is a good management practice because it allows supervisors to emphasize the high performance that is valued by the organization and to easily identify the top performers. Having a level above Fully Successful provides employees a challenging target to meet and a clear understanding of what is high performance.

In addition, when developing performance plans supervisors should ask themselves the following questions found in OPM's Handbook for Measuring Employee Performance:

  • Are the standards fair? Are they comparable to expectations for other employees in similar positions? Do they allow for some margin of error?
  • Are the standards attainable? Are expectations reasonable? Can a person accomplish the goals and expectations in the time allowed?
  • Are the standards challenging? Does the employee need to exert a reasonable amount of effort to reach the Fully Successful performance level? If the agency allows elements to be appraised at levels above the Fully Successful level, can the Fully Successful standard be surpassed?
  • Are the standards quantifiable, observable, and/or verifiable?
  • Are the standards applicable? Can the data collected through the measurement process be managed?

Rate Employees on Demonstrated Results

Clear performance plans with measurable results enable supervisors to observe and track performance and make final judgments that are credible and defensible. Supervisors should be able to identify employees who are poor performers as well as those who stand above the norm.

Risher and Fay stated, "Managers need to be able to make tough but honest decisions about the performance of their employees." They describe the following steps that supervisors can take when appraising performance at the end of the appraisal period:

  • Solicit input from individuals who have had reasons to observe and interact with the employee
  • Provide a draft appraisal to the employee for consideration of completeness and accuracy.
  • Justify high or low ratings
  • Before ratings are communicated with an employee, they should be reviewed and approved by at least one level of management

The Merit Systems Protection Board's report, "Designing an Effective Pay for Performance Compensation System," highlights that "learning how to fairly rate employee performance remains one of the most critical skills for supervisors." The report describes the following common rating pitfalls that could impede supervisors from making meaningful distinctions in performance:

  • Leniency - rating employees too favorably such as rating all employees "Outstanding"
  • Halo Effect - generalizing the overall opinion of performance based on familiarity with the employee's performance in one area
  • Discrimination - making intentional or unintentional distinctions among employees based on how similar the employees seem to yourself

The following tips for evaluating and differentiating performance can help supervisors prevent those universal rating tendencies:

  • Measure the employee's performance against objective performance elements and standards
  • Appraise the employee's performance over the entire appraisal period. Track, document, and rate all performance. Do not focus on the performance of the last two months before the end of the appraisal period only or the performance of one job area. Keep adequate notes over the full year

Developing Skills to Differentiate Performance

According to the results of OPM's 2006 Federal Human Capital Survey (FHCS), 64% of respondents agreed that "My performance appraisal is a fair reflection of my performance." Fifty-six percent agreed that "Discussions with my supervisor/team leader about my performance are worthwhile." Both questions experienced a slight decline from the 2004 survey, where they scored 66% and 58% respectively.

Agencies are beginning to hold supervisors accountable for the performance management of subordinates in their own performance plans. Supervisors are expected to align subordinate performance plans with organizational goals and rigorously appraise their subordinates. Supervisors need to develop their "people skills" to complete these critical performance management tasks.

How can supervisors develop the skills necessary to identify top, average, and poor performers?

  • Formal and interactive training on how to develop performance plans, communicate priorities, provide feedback, and listen to employees
  • Mentoring to learn from the expertise and knowledge of others
  • Training on the performance management program to understand and be able to communicate its value to employees

When a supervisor sits down with pen in hand to assign the rating of record, it should be very easy for him/her to mark the ratings on the performance appraisal form. The process should result in a realistic appraisal of performance if the supervisor has paid special attention up front to setting goals, monitoring performance, and reinforcing goal achievement. The final rating of record should come as no surprise to anyone.

Implementing FCAT-M Performance Management Competencies:

Back to Top

Control Panel