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

Using the Building Blocks of Employee Performance Plans

Using the Building Blocks of Employee Performance Plans

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.

Critical Elements

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.

Element Characteristics
 ElementRequired in Employee Performance PlansCredited in the Summary LevelCan Describe a Group's Performance
Critical Elements Yes Yes No
Non-Critical Elements No Yes Yes
Additional Performance Elements No No Yes

Non-critical Elements

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:

  • No Performance-based Actions. Failure on a non-critical element cannot be used as a basis for a performance-based action. In other words, if an employee fails a non- critical element, the employee cannot be rated at the Unacceptable level based on that failure.
  • Group Performance. Non-critical elements are the only way an agency can include the group's or the team's performance as an element in the performance plan so that it counts in the summary level. For example, team-structured organizations might use a non- critical element to plan, track, and appraise the team on achieving its goals. To do this, each team member's performance plan would include the "team" element (i.e., a non-critical element) and the rating for the team on that element would be counted in the summary level of each team member.
  • When They Can't Be Used. Non-critical elements cannot be used in two-level appraisal programs because they would have no effect on the summary rating level and, by definition, they must affect the summary level. (That is, in a two-level program failure of non-critical elements cannot bring the summary level down to Unacceptable and assessments of non-critical elements cannot raise the summary level to Fully Successful if a critical element is failed.)
  • Can Greatly Affect the Summary Level. Sometimes the word "non-critical" is interpreted to mean "not as important." Depending on how an appraisal program is designed, this need not be the case. Even though consideration of non-critical elements cannot result in assigning an Unacceptable summary level, appraisal programs can be designed so that non- critical elements have as much weight or more weight than critical elements in determining summary levels above Unacceptable.

Before you can use non-critical elements in employee performance plans, you must determine if our appraisal program allows them.

Additional Performance Elements

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:

  • New Work Assignment. There may be an aspect of work for which managers and employees would want to establish goals, track and measure performance, and develop skills, but which they do not want to count in the summary level. For example, if an employee volunteered to work on a new project that requires new skills, an additional performance element describing the new assignment provides a non-threatening vehicle for planning, measuring and giving feedback on the employee's performance without counting it in the summary level.
  • Group Performance. In a two-level appraisal program, additional performance elements are the only way to include a discussion of group performance in the appraisal process. Even though the element assessment would not count when determining the summary level, managers and employees could use it to manage the group's performance.
  • Awards. Additional performance elements can be used to establish criteria for determining awards eligibility, especially in a two-level program that no longer bases awards solely on a summary level.

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.

A Note about Group or Team Performance

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.

Control Panel