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Employees must know what they need to do to perform their jobs successfully. Expectations of employee performance are established through the elements and standards contained in employee performance plans. Elements tell employees what they have to do and standards tell them how well they have to do it. Developing elements and standards that are understandable, measurable, attainable, fair, and challenging is vital to the effectiveness of the performance appraisal process.
This article reviews the characteristics of performance elements. Federal regulations define three types: critical elements, non-critical elements, and additional performance elements. Agency appraisal programs are required to use critical elements (although the agency may choose to call them something else), but the other two types can be used at the agency's option. You should contact your human resources office to determine the types of elements your appraisal program allows.
A critical element is an assignment or responsibility of such importance that unacceptable performance in that element would result in a determination that the employee's overall performance is unacceptable. Regulations require that each employee have at least one critical element in his or her performance plan. Even though no maximum number is placed on the number of critical elements possible, most experts in the field of performance management agree that between three and seven critical elements are appropriate for most work situations.
Critical elements are the cornerstone of individual accountability in employee performance management. Unacceptable performance is defined in section 4301(3) of title 5, United States Code, as failure on one or more critical elements, which can result in the employee's reassignment, removal, or reduction in grade. Consequently, critical elements must describe work assignments and responsibilities that are within the employee's control. For most employees this means that critical elements cannot describe a group's performance. However, it may be possible to hold a supervisor or manager individually accountable for his or her work unit's products or services by including a critical element in his or her plan that assesses the group's performance. This could only occur when the supervisor or manager has individual management control over the group's production and resources.
A non-critical element is a dimension or aspect of individual, team, or organizational performance, exclusive of a critical element, that is used in assigning a summary level. Important aspects of non-critical elements include:
Before you can use non-critical elements in employee performance plans, you must determine if our appraisal program allows them.
An additional performance element is a dimension or aspect of individual, team, or organizational performance that is not a critical element and cannot be used in assigning a summary rating level. Reasons why an organization might want to use additional performance elements include:
Additional performance elements were introduced in the September 1995 performance appraisal regulations and have not been used widely, yet. We foresee their popularity rising as agencies discover the possibilities they present for managing performance. Again, you should check the rules of your appraisal program before including them in your plans.
Sometimes there is confusion about the term "group or team performance." When we say that critical elements cannot describe group performance, we are saying that the group's performance as a whole cannot be used as a critical element. This does not preclude describing an individual's contribution to the group as a critical element. The key to distinguishing between group performance and an individual's contribution to the group is that group performance is measured at an aggregate level, not for a single employee. An individual's contribution to the group is measured at the employee level.