Australia: Performance management in the APS

Clayton Utz Insights

Key Points:

The starting point for APS performance management is clear, transparent and easy to use policies.

On 1 July 2015, new performance management directions come into force that mean APS employees must take greater responsibility for their own performance. APS agencies also need to ensure that their policies and practices focus on addressing unsatisfactory performance and recognising high achievers.

The focus of the new directions is to ensure that all APS employees are performing effectively, as required by the APS Employment Principles.

The directions implement some significant changes to achieve this objective, including:

  • requiring all APS employees to have a performance agreement in place that maps performance expectations to the agency's corporate plan and the APSC Work Level Standards;
  • requiring supervisors to provide timely and honest feedback on a regular basis, and to deal promptly with underperformance;
  • requiring employees to participate constructively in performance management and unsatisfactory performance processes.

The need for change to how performance is managed in the APS has long been known. Numerous studies by the APSC have highlighted the serious challenge that APS agencies face with effectively managing their employees' performance.

Key issues identified in those studies include employees' and supervisors' uncertainty about expectations, employees not being given timely and effective feedback, and the absence of formal documentation recording measurable performance indicators in some agencies.

Another significant issue that has faced agencies is employees' refusal to participate constructively in performance management and unsatisfactory performance processes. Employees may have a number of reasons for refusing to participate – employees who have been in their position for a long time often resist change; other employees know that if they push back, their supervisor may let the issue go. Some employees may be genuinely concerned about being performance managed, particularly if they have never been told before that there is an issue with performance.

It should be no surprise that ineffective performance has an impact on an agency's performance against its corporate plan, but also comes at a cost to the taxpayer. An audit by the ANAO in 2005 highlighted the significant cost to agencies in paying performance based salary increases off the back of ineffective and poorly implemented performance management systems.

A number of challenges will face agencies as they implement the new performance management framework.

Setting clear expectations

The new directions require agencies to set clear and transparent expectations for employees about performance management. A good starting point is to consider the agency's key deliverables, and what behaviours employees at each level are expected to demonstrate in assisting the agency to meet those deliverables.

Critical to this process is setting clear and measurable performance expectations upfront. It is far too easy to say that the public sector is a different creature, and that it is too hard to set quantifiable outcomes. Agencies must resist the temptation to take the easy path, and ensure that each employee has a performance agreement that clearly maps measurable outcomes to the key deliverables and their work level standards.

Providing supervisors with the tools to manage performance

Supervisors are critical to the success of performance management systems, so they must be given the tools to effectively manage their employees, and to deal with instances of unsatisfactory performance.

The starting point is clear, transparent and easy to use policies. These should clearly set out performance expectations, and be backed up by procedures and training that provide supervisors with the tools they need to manage performance issues, including unsatisfactory performance.

On the other side, supervisors have the responsibility to provide regular, honest and timely feedback to employees about their performance. Unsatisfactory performance must not be allowed to pass by, nor must employees rewarded with salary increments or promotions if they cannot demonstrate effective performance.

Dealing with difficult employees

Picture this. You are a supervisor of an APS-level employee. The employee is underperforming and you implement a performance improvement process. Despite being provided with regular feedback and the employee being given additional support, they don't improve their performance. The employee's response at the end of the process is "you're bullying me"

Sound familiar? You're not alone. Already this year, a number of APS agencies have faced applications to the Fair Work Commission for orders to stop bullying by employees being performance managed. The prospect of being named as a respondent to such an application is daunting for many supervisors, as is the possibility of a Code of Conduct investigation.

The prospect of a bullying claim should not be an excuse to avoid difficult conversations, or to discipline employees who are underperforming. After all, employees have an obligation to ensure they are performing effectively and cannot be permitted to frustrate the process.

Key to this is ensuring that supervisors have the confidence to manage difficult employees and the support of their human resources departments in doing so. Agencies must also be prepared to discipline employees who refuse to participate constructively and to follow through with procedures when an employee has unsatisfactory performance.

The message to both APS agencies and their employees going forward is clear – poor performance is not to be tolerated.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this bulletin. Persons listed may not be admitted in all states and territories.

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