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In recent years, agencies have moved from highly structured performance management processes to a focus on employees having a line of sight between their individual performance expectations and goals and the priorities and goals of the agency. There has also been a focus on the quality of performance discussions.

The following principles are expressed in many agencies performance management policies:

  • there should be ‘no surprises’ in the rating given at the end of the performance cycle because the employee has had discussions and feedback throughout the year and
  • managers and employees are jointly responsible for performance meaning that employees need to engage constructively in the performance management process, including seeking feedback and acting on it.

The Merit Protection Commissioner recommended in two cases that end of performance cycle ratings of less than satisfactory be set aside on the basis that:

  • the employees performance expectations were not clearly articulated
  • there was a lack of evidence of feedback to the employees
  • the process followed involved a substantial failure to comply with the agencies performance management policies such that the outcome was unfair.

In the first case, the agency’s performance management policy required that the business outcomes an employee is to deliver are to be clear and achievable. In this case, the employee changed jobs during the performance cycle but her performance agreement was not updated to reflect a substantially different role.

The agency’s performance management policy provided that there will be regular opportunities for an employee to discuss their performance with their manager and respond to feedback. The employee was able to argue credibly that she had not received an indication from her manager that her performance was lacking until she received the end-of-cycle performance rating.

The employee’s manager rated her performance as satisfactory in the mid-cycle review. The manager claimed to have provided feedback to the employee during the second half of the performance cycle such that the final rating should not have been a surprise. He produced handwritten notes of six discussions with the employee in which he discussed matters relating to performance. The employee had no record of these meetings in her diary, no recollection of discussions of the type claimed by the manager and was able to demonstrate that a number of these discussions could not have occurred on the day stated. The Merit Protection Commissioner concluded that while the manager believed he had provided performance feedback and coaching support to the employee the documentary evidence did not support his belief.

The Merit Protection Commissioner recommended that the unsatisfactory performance rating be set aside.

The second case involved an employee working to a manager who believed the employee lacked capability at his classification level. The manager assigned the employee processing duties which would have been more appropriately performed by someone at a lower classification level. In assessing the employee’s performance, the manager relied on project work the employee undertook early in the performance cycle at his classification level and feedback from stakeholders.

The agency’s performance management policy required that performance agreements document the objectives and deliverables in the employee’s role as well as desired behaviours and include realistic standards and measures. The employee’s performance agreement was a brief list of tasks with no supporting detail and two very general behavioural expectations. The Merit Protection Commissioner considered this was inadequate in light of the manager’s concerns about the employee’s capability and was inconsistent with the agency’s performance management policy. The Merit Protection Commissioner considered the performance agreement failed to give the employee guidance about what was expected of him both with respect to his duties and the way he performed them.

The employee disputes that he received feedback from the manager. The manager held several discussions with the employee but did not document them. The employee kept his own record of these discussions. The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that the manager had concerns that the employee did not understand the feedback he was receiving. In this circumstance it is advisable for a manager to keep a record of feedback discussions and send a copy of the employee for confirmation and to reinforce points the manager suspects the employee has not understood.

Finally, the Merit Protection Commissioner noted a lack of evidence supporting the final rating. The manager appeared to be relying on information about the employee’s engagement with stakeholders—feedback that was not provided directly to the manager but rather to colleagues and then relayed to the manager. There was no documentary evidence supporting this feedback. In addition, there was insufficient evidence about the quality of the project work delivered by the employee.

The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that although, managers and employees share joint responsibility for engaging constructively in the performance management process, it is not sufficient for a manager to just assert that an employee is under-performing. The manager needs to explain why this is the case and to have some evidence to support their conclusion.

The Merit Protection Commissioner recommended in both cases that the performance ratings be set aside.