Tools of the Trade: Considerations When Developing Performance Standards

Measuring performance is not an easy task—especially in today’s Federal work environment.  Federal employees no longer spend their days counting widgets or doing easily defined administrative tasks.  They are performing more knowledge-based work that involves complicated, long-term projects that are not as easily described in terms of the standard quality, quantity, and timeliness measures used in the past.  But with increasing telework, decreasing staffing levels, and functions more closely tied to public safety and security than ever, measuring performance is important. 

A performance standard is a statement of what the employee is expected to do and at what level he or she is expected to perform.  It should be reasonable and measurable.  There are some basic steps you should take when developing performance standards.  These are by no means inclusive but are being presented to give you a flavor for the decisions that need to be made. 

Define the critical aspects of the job.  A thorough job analysis provides critical information for many aspects of the job, including setting performance standards.  By collecting systematic data from subject matter experts, a job analysis identifies the key tasks of the job and can also identify some basic performance factors, such as how long it takes to do a task or the quality expected.  Therefore, the job analysis can serve as the basis for the performance standards.

Set realistic performance targets.  The role of performance standards should be to challenge employees to produce without making the goal so difficult as to de-motivate them.  If standards are too hard to achieve, they are de-motivating to everyone.  If they are too easy to achieve, they will de-motivate your top performers and drive lower production throughout the office.  There is rarely a “right” answer as to what a standard should be; but evaluating the performance outcomes of your top and middle performers may help you get a clearer picture of what it takes to perform the job well.

Make sure the performance standards are clear.  As stated in OPM guidance, performance standards should be “objective, measurable, realistic, and stated clearly in writing.”  Employees should understand what the standard is, what is expected of them to reach the higher levels of performance, and how to gauge where they stand at any given point.  Using numerical standards that require complicated formulas to calculate success or using vague language that can be interpreted in may different ways may only confuse and de-motivate employees.

Ensure standards are within the employee’s control. There are few things more frustrating for an employee than being told they are accountable for something they can’t control.  For instance, if an employee’s timeliness measure includes the time it takes for management to review a product, the employee could be negatively impacted by an overworked manager.  Take care to define standards that are within the employee’s control.

Collaborate with the employee.  Obtaining feedback from employees on what they do and how they do it is a good way of obtaining their buy-in and support.  It will also help ensure that employees are clear on the standards for which they are being rated.  Employees can be involved in many ways—from providing input to what tasks are critical to defining the different levels of performance.  They can be involved as a group or as individuals.  Obtaining their input doesn’t mean that they have the final say on what the standard or target is, but openness and transparency should foster more good will and trust between management and employees, making performance management easier and more effective. 

Communicate with the employee. The process doesn’t end when the standards are in place.  Constant communication throughout the performance cycle is critical to ensuring that employees are performing the tasks that are critical at the optimum performance level so that the organization can achieve its larger goals. 

For more information on the performance management process, including regulatory requirements for performance standards, please see OPM’s Workforce Performance Resources page at