Performance Appraisals: Mid-Year Reviews

It seems as if we were just discussing end of year performance appraisals for federal employees and here come mid-year reviews.  Performance evaluations, also called performance appraisals, performance ratings, and performance management, can be controversial for a number of reasons.  For example, some agencies directly link performance ratings to performance award amounts, either as a flat rate cash award based on annual rating or as a percentage of base salary.  Other agencies draw no such direct link and instead provide first or second line managers absolute discretion concerning the amount of a performance award.  Still, some agencies provide absolutely no associated cash award based on the annual performance rating of record, in our opinion, calling into question the real value and true importance of performance ratings to such an agency.

It is important for federal employees to understand performance management, in nearly all its forms, is an inherent management right in directing employees and assigning work. However, for most bargaining unit employees, the applicable Master Agreement typically contains a dedicated Article concerning procedures and processes related to performance management resulting in significant negotiability disputes. Whereas, non bargaining unit employees are typically covered, to some degree, by the Agency administrative process.  Additionally, performance rating outcomes can be a basis in an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, as can just about anything.  In fact, we often recommend employees pursue EEO complaints instead of grievances when the situation presents itself. In either regard, it is a difficult road for any federal employee to grieve the outcome of a rating unless they are dealing with weak agency managers who prefer to acquiesce in disputes.

Special Note for Union Representatives (Stewards, officials, officers, etc.): Any federal employee who spends one-hundred percent of their time performing representational union functions, as well as those spending a significant amount of time, as determined by the agency, cannot be provided performance appraisal ratings of record. See, Office of Personnel Management, Explanation of Regulation, 5 CFR Part 430, 60 Fed. Reg. 43, 937. Simply put, 5 USC 4302 requires agencies to establish performance appraisal systems evaluating “job performance.” Union representational functions performed by federal employees on official time are not duties assigned by the agency and therefore are not considered “job performance.”  See, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms v. FLRA, 83 FLRR 1-8039, 104 S. Ct. 439 (U.S. 1983). Based on the foregoing, union representatives in this category are also ineligible for performance awards.  In fact, it would arguably be illegal to provide a performance award to a union official in this category.

Further Note:  In consulting with federal labor organizations on infrastructure, we often recommend local unions establish a performance award system for union representatives not otherwise eligible for agency performance ratings or awards.

Importance of the “Mid-Year” Review

We advise management officials to issue next year’s occupational performance standards at the same time they complete annual performance ratings. “Mid-year” performance reviews can actually occur at any time between the most recent annual performance rating of record and the next annual performance rating of record. Some agency regulations, and possibly some Master Agreements, contain strict guidance concerning mid-year dates versus others providing vague guidance. Understand, this is a minimum standard in that at least one mid-year review is required.  However, we advise management officials (at all levels) to conduct multiple performance counseling sessions apprising employee’s of their performance throughout the year.  We believe performance management is continuous.

Most performance ratings systems only require a determination of “Fully successful or better” at the mid-year juncture. As a supervisor myself of a large work group, I feel I owe more of an explanation to the employees under my supervision.  While I will rated them “FS or better,” I will also advise employees what I would rate them if I was conducting the final annual rating of record.  Most supervisors do not do this however as they believe it creates a certain liability.  It does not.  Simply put, performance can change at anytime. However, while performance can change at any time, we strongly recommend to supervisors any performance decline be accompanied by both interim performance counseling (on the way down or up- though on the way down is more critical) and sufficient documentation.

Mid-year performance reviews can serve as an indicator to an employee as what to expect at the annual performance rating.  In fact, the annual final performance rating (closeout) should not surprise the employee.  This advance indicator allows an employee to make adjustments, with sufficient time to affect the final rating.  This positive outcome depends significantly on the ability of the supervisor to communicate effectively and honestly during the mid-ear session and the ability of the employee to accept honest feedback. However, as consultants, we receive a lot of feedback from these supervisors indicating they believe they must be defensive in such sessions as employees often are unable to deal with constructive criticism necessary for honest evaluation and opportunity to improve.  We generally find this to be true and observe many out-right under performing employees believe they are entitled to an Outstanding (or other top rating depending on your agency scheme) performance rating, regardless of facts. They will often be argumentative during these sessions, if not outright combative.  Such an attitude only undermines the true purpose of the mid-year review and ultimately does not serve the employee or agency.

Conclusion

Federal employees should understand and constructively use the performance rating system within their individual agencies.  Their should be no assumption of an entitlement to any type of rating.  Federal employees must also understand that all ratings, regardless of any system, are based on a certain amount of subjectivity.  Supervisors are provided this discretion, provided such discretion is not applied arbitrarily or disparately.  Finally, in our professional opinion, no performance rating system is worth anything if not backed up by a substantive performance award (cash) system. If your agency on one hand argues the critical importance of performance management but provides no associated award, it is simply not being honest or fair.

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