Issue Briefs

Following is an excerpt from a new MSPB white paper examining practices on within-grade increases, which overall are granted at a high rate but with some notable differences among agencies.


There are several factors that appear to be related to an agency’s WGI denial rate. These include: (1) whether the agency’s appraisal system specifically has a category for performance that is less than successful but better than unacceptable; (2) the nature of the work being performed; and (3) the performance culture and the extent to which it includes established measurements and guidance to supervisors.

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Appraisal System Rating Level for Employees Less than Successful but Better than Unacceptable

One factor that may affect WGI denial rates is the appraisal system’s rating pattern. Employees in a rating system that allows a Level 2 rating of record (less than successful, but better than unacceptable) are four times more likely to have a WGI denied than those whose system does not include this level.

Performance appraisal is the process by which agencies evaluate the performance of employees, with a numeric rating assigned to that assessment. When done properly, it begins with a supervisor explaining performance expectations and how the supervisor will assess performance against those expectations. Over time, conversations occur discussing the employee’s performance in light of those standards. At the end of a set period of time (typically one year), the performance on individual elements is assessed and a summary rating level is assigned to each employee. In the Federal Government, this summary rating is recorded as a number, often 1 (lowest) through 5 (highest).

Regulations from OPM allow agencies to use one of eight different rating patterns. The regulations do not offer a label for Level 2 or Level 4. However, Level 2 falls between Levels 1 and 3, and agencies often assign it a label such as “needs improvement” or “minimally successful.” An employee who is at Level 1 and does not improve may be removed. An employee at Level 3 is successful. Thus, the level most analogous to the employee falling short of “at an acceptable level of competence” while remaining in the position at full salary (making the WGI relevant) is Level 2.

This may be why WGI denials are less common when the employing agency’s appraisal system does not include a summary rating of Level 2. If the employee is at Level 3, that implies they are at an acceptable level of competence. If the employee is at Level 1, continued employment is uncertain. Without Level 2, there is no level at which an employee should be denied a WGI, yet should not be removed.

This is not to imply that ratings at Level 2—where it is available—are common. Only 0.2 percent of employees under systems with a Level 2 are rated at that level. What is noteworthy is the relationship between having a Level 2 option in the appraisal system and denying a WGI. As shown in Chart 1, an employee in a rating appraisal system that includes Level 2 is four times as likely to be denied a WGI as an employee in a system that does not. This may be a consequence of the appraisal system allowing an employee to be rated between acceptable and completely unacceptable. It may also be that agencies choosing to measure performance more precisely (using more levels for distinguishing performance) have a different cultural attitude towards performance deficiencies.

However, the use of Level 2 may present other challenges in managing performance, even if it facilitates the denial of a WGI. First, it is a difficult level of performance to define, both technically and intuitively. Second, it makes possible a situation that managers, employees, and members of the public may find intolerable: an employee who is not performing the job satisfactorily, yet cannot be removed for performance and who remains in the position at a full salary. In the words of one organization, “It can be a state of limbo. The employee may not improve significantly [enough] to be rated at level 3 but not decrease in the level of performance to where formal performance action may be taken.”

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Nature of the Work

The nature of the work also appears to be related to rates of WGI denials. In short, the occupations that are easier to measure for timeliness and quantity tend to have higher rates of WGI denials. Chart 2 shows the occupations with WGI denial rates of 0.45 percent (0.5 percent when rounded) or higher.

In many of these occupations, positions are typically centered on case work. That might make it easier to measure the work being performed. For example, the Department of State explained that—

The duties of a Passport Specialist are carefully regulated by passport adjudication policy, and the results of their work (adjudicated passport applications) are able to be measured concretely in terms of quantity, timeliness, and accuracy of adjudication. Due to the standardized nature of the work and the metrics available to measure productivity, Passport Specialists work under particularly specific and clear performance elements, and supervisors can easily determine whether an employee is performing successfully or unsuccessfully according to the performance standards.

This may help explain why WGIs were denied to employees in the “Passport and Visa Examining Series” at approximately ten times the rate for the rest of the Department of State.

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While case work can influence WGI denial rates, it does not stand alone. As noted in the prior section, the rating pattern used by an agency matters, too. One agency (“Agency W”) demonstrates how these two things can interact. This agency has a workforce primarily engaged in case work—which typically results in higher WGI denial rates. But its rating pattern has no Level 2—and the absence of a Level 2 is associated with lower WGI denial rates.

The agency stated that “employees are not evaluated under standards that include the option for management to rate the person between meeting and failing the individual performance element.” Despite its case work, Agency W denies only 0.114 percent of WGIs. While this is a much higher denial rate than other agencies using the same rating pattern, it is slightly less than the Governmentwide average of 0.146 percent. This agency is an example of why neither the type of work nor rating pattern alone can explain WGI denial rates. Several factors play interacting roles.

One reason that case work often coincides with higher rates of WGI denials may be that case work lends itself to easier measurement of performance. But there can be a difference between having the option to measure performance and a culture that takes advantage of that opportunity. As described below, a performance management culture and supporting guidance may also affect WGI denial rates.

Performance Measurement Culture and Guidance

One Cabinet department component had a WGI denial rate of nearly 3 percent.19 It has employees in a case work occupation and uses rating Pattern H, which allows for five different rating levels. In addition to these factors, the component’s collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) contain detailed structures for recognizing performance. For example, in one CBA, the percent of salary granted as a performance award is based upon the precise extent to which one performance goal is exceeded, with six different award ranges available. There is also a five-page memorandum on WGIs that, among other things, instructs supervisors on the exact period of performance to be considered when assessing accomplishments for the purposes of granting or denying WGIs. This offers consistency across the component and supervisors are not left to make such decisions subjectively.

The combination of casework, a five-level rating pattern, and a performance measurement culture with established metrics may be why this component has the highest rate of WGI denials within the department. Their combination provides a support structure that supervisors can draw upon when needed.

A different department (“Department A”) with a comparatively high rate of WGI denials also indicated that the performance measurement support system may play a large role in how often the WGI denial authority is used. One component in Department A issued a detailed guide for managers addressing what a performance deficiency means. The component’s representative said that the “union liked this transparency.” Another component in Department A conveyed their managers’ need for a process that is clearly defined, repeatable, and used across the organization. The view expressed was, “if you have to do something on the fly then you will get problems.” Several components in Department A stressed the importance of documentation.

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While documentation is often emphasized in the context of defending adverse personnel decisions, it plays another role. Continuously documenting performance helps supervisors to think through how the employee is really performing and spot issues early. This enables them to intervene and—should denial of a WGI be appropriate—feel confident in that choice.

Waiting until the WGI is due to assess the employee’s performance may leave a supervisor little or no time to think about all the considerations, such as: the consistency of the quality, quantity, and timeliness of the employee’s performance; whether that performance is acceptable; whether the employee is being judged fairly compared to other employees; whether there is evidence to support those conclusions; and whether there will be institutional support to deny the WGI.

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