OPM has told agencies that they should be “rigorous” in employee performance ratings and “should allocate awards in a manner that provides meaningfully greater rewards to top performers.”

“Agencies should ensure only employees who have demonstrated the highest levels of individual performance receive the highest annual ratings of record and the highest performance awards,” a memo says. “This is implemented most effectively when performance plans contain rigorous performance standards upon which employee performance will be assessed.”


“Performance standards should be sufficiently specific so that they provide firm benchmarks toward which an employee can aim his or her performance, and are not susceptible to a performance action based on whim instead of considered judgment,” it adds; those evaluations also can be used for disciplinary actions on grounds of poor performance.

The memo is a companion to one issued jointly by OPM and OMB telling agencies to review their funding and awards policies and to send those plans to OMB with their submissions for the fiscal 2021 budget cycle.

The memo says that in a five-level rating system, a rating of 3, or “fully successful” should be “seen as the category for employees who are meeting valid performance standards designed to deliver on what the American public should be able to expect from their civil servants.” A rating of 4, or “exceeds fully successful” should be used for “individuals who are delivering measurable outcomes for the American public in a way that is measurably beyond the standard set for fully successful.”

A rating of 5, or “outstanding” should be used for those “going significantly above and beyond daily requirements”—for example, an employee who “delivered extraordinary results or sustained a high level of performance during a highly demanding period or within a challenging environmental context, such as during a time of transition or undue pressure from extenuating circumstances or unique mission requirements.”

The memo does not address what should constitute a rating of 2, “minimally successful,” or 1, “unsuccessful.”

OPM also told agencies that:

* “Supervisors should encourage employees to be involved in the development and implementation of their performance plans.”

* “Forced distribution of employees among levels of performance, or grading on the curve, is prohibited, because employees are required to be assessed against documented standards of performance versus an individual’s performance relative to others.”

* “Some degree of subjective judgment” is allowed and “supervisors may clarify and flesh out the day-to-day application of performance standards to particular workplace and job requirements, which may evolve during the appraisal period.”