Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

How to reward top employees

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Countless blue-ribbon panels, reports and training classes have addressed methods to discipline wayward feds. But much less airtime and ink have been devoted to rewarding prized employees. So, to help even the score, here are descriptions of the most common types of awards you may give to honor your star players.

• Grade increase: Most grade increases for General Schedule employees are computed under the “two-step” rule: First, determine the salary two steps higher than the employee’s current step; then, at the next higher grade, find the two steps in the GS range that straddle the employee’s “two-stepped salary”; the higher step is the employee’s grade and step after promotion.

So, looking at the GS salary tables at, suppose you earn $126,251 at Grade 14, Step 7 in Washington, D.C. Go up two steps to Grade 14, Step 9, which provides a salary of $133,264. On the GS-15 range, $133,264 falls between Steps 3 and 4. Your promotion would be to GS-15, Step 4, with a salary of $136,134.

• Quality step increase (QSI): This is a faster-than-normal increase. A QSI may be awarded to any top producer who earns the highest possible rating on his annual review, demonstrates superior productivity, has not received a QSI within the previous 52 weeks and has not reached Step 10 of his grade level. In most cases, a QSI does not delay the timing of the employee’s next regularly scheduled step increase.

• Performance-based cash award: Also known as a rating-based award, this is a lump-sum cash payment. It is designed to recognize superior productivity during a specified rating period, and it may be justified solely by a superior annual evaluation. In most cases, the value of the award depends on the budget of the employee’s office and the discretion of his supervisor.

• Special act award: This type of award is designed to honor an individual or group that exceeds expected productivity in a significant way. It is also designed to recognize major one-time achievements. These awards may range from $25 to $10,000.

• Time off: Time off from work without loss of pay or leave is granted as an incentive or as recognition of a suggestion, invention, superior accomplishment or other contribution that improves government operations. Each agency sets its own policy on the amount of time off.

• Informal recognition: This is given to an employee or group to recognize a contribution that would ordinarily not merit formal recognition. For example, a voucher, gift certificate or U.S. savings bond may be given as informal awards.

• Honorary award. These are generally symbolic and usually do not involve money — with the exception that savings bonds may be given as honorary awards. Honorary awards are generally given as a gesture of respect and to recognize an employee’s productivity and value to the organization.

Managers may use any combination of awards to honor a single contribution, as long as the recipient’s contribution warrants the total value of the award.

Your agency may sponsor awards in addition to those listed. And note that awards are usually accompanied by a glowing written justification.

Worried about the expense of awards? It may cost your office far less to honor worthy employees with awards than to lose a prized employee because he does not feel sufficiently appreciated.

Lead charge for change with care

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There’s an adage for public speakers: “Tell your audience what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said.” A similar principle holds true for change managers. If you plan to steer your staffers into new territory, you should initially tell them about their new destination or goal, repeatedly describe it as they approach it, and then applaud them once they reach it.

Some ways to help you do so:

* Present a compelling case for your new goal — whether it is changing your office’s procedures, rearranging your office’s division of labor, adapting new technologies or adjusting your office’s overall objectives. Explain to your staffers how achieving the goal will benefit your office by, for example, solving a concrete problem or increasing efficiency. Cite examples of how similar changes have benefited other organizations. Explain to your staffers how reaching the goal will benefit them personally by, for example, updating or expanding their skills.

Advocate your goals early and often, including in staff meetings, in articles on your office’s intranet site and in one-on-one discussions with staffers.

Create an action plan. Get buy-in from supervisors by inviting them to help you map your new course. Your plan should include metrics, milestones or timelines that pave the way to success. You should also identify what part each staffer will play in achieving the goal. If your staffers need training or equipment to succeed, give it to them.

Monitor progress. Look for sources of potential resistance, help staffers eliminate them, and revise your metrics accordingly. Solicit feedback on progress and obstacles to change in one-on-one conversations with front-line staffers — not just with supervisors.

Stay positive. As your staffers venture into territory, they will probably run up some blind alleys, take wrong turns and perhaps make some lollapaloozas of mistakes. Don’t punish or humiliate hard-working, well-meaning staffers for such mishaps.

If you’re forcing your staffers to take risks, expect the odds to sometimes work against them. Some staffers may fail because your action plan — not their actions — is deficient by, for example, failing to anticipate potential obstacles or twists of fate. So when things go awry, help employees trouble-shoot, discuss how to avoid future problems, and keep encouraging them toward your goal.

Be willing to change your action plan. No matter how effective your plan, its implementation will probably take more time and effort than expected. Be prepared to adjust.

Also, provide ways to communicate with front-line staffers. Invite them to submit anonymous suggestions and tips about counterproductive rumors that may be circulating. Address reasonable concerns to the entire staff.

Celebrate success. Celebrate, or at least acknowledge, when your office reaches major milestones. Research your agency’s award options and reward high producers accordingly. Congratulate these high-producers in staff meetings, review how they conquered obstacles and identify next steps.

Get your hands dirty. One way to earn your staffers’ respect and encourage them to take your plan seriously is to work side-by-side with them, if only for short stints. By descending from your management pedestal and meeting staffers in their territory, you create a bonding experience, demonstrate your desire to understand your staffers’ jobs and prove that you’re personally engaged and invested in their success. Also, attend any major events or demonstrations related to your action plan.

Are we there yet? No. Change usually only begets more change. Every field is ever-changing and ever-evolving. So when your office does reach its new goal, it’s probably but a prelude to more change. Explain this principle to staffers, and then lead the charge for more change.