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Employee performance

In an environment of increasing demands and pressure to do more with less, lifting performance across the Australian Public Service (APS) is critically important. This not only benefits the organisation, it also benefits employees.

Many of the practices that support employee performance also impact positively on employee job satisfaction, retention and loyalty. Recommended practices include:

  • setting and communicating clear performance expectations
  • giving relevant and regular work-related feedback
  • evaluating performance
  • providing appropriate learning and development opportunities
  • identifying organisational career paths for employees
  • recognising and rewarding good performance
  • managing underperformance.

Focusing on individual employee performance helps improve organisational performance by aligning it with team and organisational objectives, outcomes and results.

Employee performance remains a key focus for the APS and it is undergoing significant reform.

The key to optimising performance is to ensure that good performance conversations occur regularly between managers and employees. Good performance conversations:

  • are forward looking
  • connect employees to their organisation and other relevant stakeholders
  • highlight the contribution an employee’s performance makes to the organisation’s success
  • are honest and informed about how people are actually performing.

In the 2016 APS employee census, respondents were asked if they had received formal and/or informal performance feedback in the last 12 months and to what extent they agreed that the feedback would help them improve their performance.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents reported receiving formal feedback in the last 12 months. Seventy-seven percent of respondents reported receiving either regular or irregular informal performance feedback.

Formal and informal performance feedback received in the last 12 months

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 1.

‘Formal’ feedback typically occurs in a discussion scheduled specifically to discuss performance. Informal feedback is usually communicated in the moment, through a brief conversation on the job or specific to a particular piece of work.

Understanding what informal feedback is and is not is crucial, both for those giving and receiving informal feedback. It is more than just saying ‘thank you’ or ‘great job’. Quality feedback—both informal and formal—helps employees understand what they are doing well, so they can keep doing it, and what they should do differently. A small proportion of employees reported being unsure about whether they had received informal feedback. More than half of the census respondents agreed that their most recent informal performance feedback will help to improve their performance.

A significant disconnect exists between the perceptions of managers and employees on the quality of performance feedback. Seventy-seven percent of managers reported feeling confident that the formal performance feedback they provide to their staff has a direct benefit. In contrast, only 47.8 percent of employees agree that their most recent formal performance feedback will help to improve their performance.

Impact of performance feedback

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 2.

To ensure effective performance, it is essential that employees know what is expected of them. Again, a gap exists between the perceptions of managers and employees on the extent to which expectations are clear and consistent.

In the 2016 employee census, 62.3 percent of employees reported that their manager provides them with clear and consistent performance expectations. In comparison, almost 85 percent of managers reported that they articulate clear and consistent performance expectations to their staff. These results show that there is scope to improve the way in which performance expectations are communicated to employees.

The disconnect between the perceptions of managers and employees around performance may be one barrier to building manager capability. Managers who perceive that they are already communicating clear expectations and providing high quality feedback to their staff may not consider developing their skills in these areas.

Clear and consistent performance expectations

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

To support the increased focus on performance management, the APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy places an emphasis on the development of performance management capability across the APS. Targeted learning programs have been established to develop and enhance performance management capability.

Efforts to improve the processes involved with performance management and the effect that performance management has on achieving high individual and organisational performance have also led to the Commission developing Ripple, an innovative new approach to increasing the focus on high performance.

Ripple is intended to help an employee think through what is important to them about their job and to assist in discussing these priorities with their manager. It is a simple approach to a complex topic that is built on the idea that a productive conversation begins with a good question.

Quality performance conversations are a means to better understanding the factors contributing to current levels of performance and to identify areas and strategies for improvement.

Ripple smartphone application for employee performance

a. The APSC has developed Ripple, an innovative smartphone app that reaches out to employees directly to get them talking—and thinking—about the factors that drive performance in the workplace, some of which rarely find their way into a typical annual performance review. This includes an extensive range of causal factors, from feedback to business planning to employee engagement, and everything in between.

b. Ripple is a conversation starter.

c. The concept is simple: one question each day on performance issues, delivered to participating employees’ smartphones, with accumulative APS-wide results available immediately. It requires a commitment of less than a minute a day.

d. Ripple is being trialed with around 2,000 EL 1 employees from across the APS from August to December 2016. The APSC plans to roll Ripple out across the APS in 2017 once the trial has been evaluated.

e. More information on Ripple is available here.

Performance management systems

A series of reports and research findings over more than a ten year period confirm that the effective management of employee performance is a significant and ongoing challenge for the APS. There are discrepancies between the performance management systems in place in APS agencies, which are often acceptable from a design perspective, and the perceived effectiveness of those systems.

In the 2016 State of the Service agency survey, each agency was asked to identify the measures it had in place to assist in implementing its performance management system. Eighty-six percent of agencies reported having a process in place across the whole agency to ensure consistency in assessment. Almost 70 per cent of agencies had a reward and recognition system that was not linked to financial rewards. Sixty-five per cent of agencies had a system in place to review and recognise the performance of teams, as well as individuals.

Did your agency have the following measures in place in 2015–16 to assist in implementing its performance management system?

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 4.

Agencies were also asked to identify the mechanisms that were in place to ensure that managers implement the agency’s performance management systems. Over three quarters reported that testing compliance with agency performance management directives is occurring at the agency level. Nearly two thirds of agencies report that agency wide performance indicators relating to performance management are included in more senior managers’ performance agreements across the whole agency.

Did your agency have the following mechanisms in place during 2015–16 to ensure line managers implement the agency’s performance management systems?

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 5.

Ninety-five percent of agencies reported that all employees in the agency were required to have a formal performance agreement in place during 2015–16. Small variations in the requirement for mandatory performance agreements can be seen across agency size, with large and extra large agencies requiring all employees to have a performance agreement while extra small agencies were less likely to require a formal performance agreement.

During 2015–16, were all of your agency’s employees required to have a formal performance agreement?

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 6.

Achieving improvements in performance management across the APS means ensuring there are suitable systems in place.

Optimising employee performance in the APS

Historically, the APS has largely approached performance management as a compliance-based activity. Performance management systems have been designed to capture adherence to process rather than measure actual performance outcomes.

Research tells us that performance systems and processes contribute very little to actual performance outcomes. By contrast, regular, constructive and forward-looking performance conversations are among the greatest contributors to performance outcomes. Employee performance should be looked at in the context of the organisation, and be delivered within a performance framework that prioritises conversations ahead of process and contribution ahead of compliance.

Performance management systems should:

  • ensure employees know what is expected of them
  • promote the organisation’s desired culture
  • align individual duties with corporate priorities
  • accurately measure total employee contribution, and
  • promote regular and constructive manager-employee performance conversations.

The APSC has released guiding principles to support agencies to reform their performance management systems. The principles support a shift towards a high performance culture through four key messages:

  • shift the focus from red tape and compliance-based processes to outcome-focused conversations;
  • enable conversations to happen and measure the impact;
  • continuously adapt and improve the approach for optimising employee performance;
  • focus on quickly returning employees to performance, and address underperformance separately.

The principles were co-developed with performance management practitioners from around 20 APS agencies.