What’s Fair? Managing Perceptions of Performance Management Programs


Agencies use performance management programs to inform employee decisions related to compensation, transfers, promotions and workforce cuts. A key goal of any performance management program is to distinguish top performers from the rest of the pack in order to reward the top performers. As long as federal agencies have a finite amount of resources to be distributed unevenly across the workforce, some will get more than others.

However, perceptions of the performance management program’s fairness significantly impacts employee motivation. When they notice an inequity in rewards, their motivation sinks. On the other hand, when the extra contributions of a high performer are not rewarded, their motivation sinks.

To manage this, don’t focus on making sure outcomes are fair for all employees. It’s a losing battle. Instead, focus on the process that is used to distribute rewards. The perceived fairness of performance management procedures is critical to motivation and retention of all staff members, which ultimately affects the agency’s success as a whole.

Let’s use an example. An employee feels disappointed that she did not receive a bonus, but one of her co-workers does receive a bonus. If the reward system is transparent,  her supervisor communicates her performance to her early and often, the performance elements where objective and fair and she understands that her contributions fell short of meeting the standards for a larger reward. Then, she will likely think that the performance management system was fair, despite not receiving a bonus. If an agency can achieve this, then the employee will still be motivated to improve her performance by the next review period.

Measuring the perceptions of a performance management program is manageable. Conduct a short survey to ask how fair they think this process a couple of times throughout the performance period. Collect this data just as you would collect performance ratings, and compare across different groups and demographics. You may even discover unexpected trends worthy of further investigation.

For performance management programs to be perceived as fair, they should:

  • Use established performance measures
  • Promote continuous career development and provide training programs
  • Communicate performance expectations and employee goals regularly
  • Give employees a sense of ownership in the goal-setting process
  • Link goals to compensation, rewards and recognition
  • Hold employees accountable for their actions
  • Be consistent and reliable

A Robust Performance Management System Motivates Employees 
The public sector can ensure performance management and feedback is fair, accurate and that employees are recognized for their contributions. If you can adequately reward the top 10 percent of your employees while keeping the rest engaged and motivated, then your performance management program is working well. Implementing a strong performance management system into your agency helps HR personnel and agency managers to monitor performance data over time for vital insights into long-term planning.

Lastly, an inspiring and performance-driven program will help you hire and retain top employees and ultimately contribute to the success of the agency—a win that HR professionals and their colleagues can all enjoy.


George Kettner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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