Dear Bureaucrat,

I was hired as a GS-11 on a salary ladder to GS-13. I’m currently a GS-12, and just finished my second annual performance review, with my two-year anniversary coming up in a couple months. Even though I was rated “Exceed Expectations” both overall and in all performance categories except one (where I was rated “Outstanding”), my supervisor told me that I’m not performing at the GS-13 level, so I shouldn’t expect a promotion at the two-year anniversary. How normal is this fact pattern, how bothered should I be, and how should I think about my next steps?

Signed, What Next?

Dear What,

Federal agencies vary in how they handle career ladder promotions. It may not be unusual in your agency to deny promotion when you first reach the required time in grade, but it is a bad sign. Do not assume everything will work out. Take action.

STEP 1. Research the requirements that your boss must follow in deciding career ladder promotions. Find your agency’s policy for career ladder promotions. It might be in a human resources manual, or a directive, or called by some other name. If you cannot find it on your agency’s intranet, then ask the human resources office. Also find the union contract covering your position, which might be called a negotiated agreement or a collective bargaining agreement. Study these documents to find requirements that are in your favor. For example, do they require your boss to give you a written explanation for denying a career ladder promotion, or to conduct another review for the promotion after a certain period of time, or to give you written benchmark criteria to achieve the next higher level in the career ladder? Your union might be helpful in explaining the requirements and how your agency usually applies them.

Also obtain from your human resources office the Position Description and the Statement of Difference that define your job at your current GS-12 level and the GS-13 level. Most federal agencies write these on form OF-8. Identify how these documents distinguish between GS-12 and GS-13 in terms of skills, duties and performance.

STEP 2. Talk to your boss. Try to keep the tone cooperative rather than adversarial. Ideally, you want her to feel that your promotion will be a shared accomplishment for both of you. It helps that she already told you the issue is your performance, rather than a factor you cannot change such as your group not needing work at the GS-13 level or not having funding for a GS-13. Go over your Position Description together and ask her which of the GS-13 performance elements in it you have not met. Ask her what you can accomplish in the coming months that will show you are meeting those elements. If you do not think you can accomplish those things without getting assigned more challenging work or being trained in an additional skill, then ask her to give you those opportunities. Ask her when you can meet again to review whether you have accomplished what she said you need to in order to demonstrate GS-13 performance and get promoted. She may say a year or six months, but ask for a quicker cycle such as three months.

Your agency’s policy or your union contract might require your boss to give you all this in writing. If not, offer to write it up after you talk, as a plan for what you need to do to be promoted, which both of you will agree on.

STEP 3. Focus like a laser on accomplishing the specific things your boss said will show you are performing at a GS-13 level. Keep a running list of the evidence for each one — notes of what you accomplished, emails from your boss or others saying positive things about your work, anything you will be able to show your boss to substantiate your accomplishments. When you have a follow-up meeting about your promotion, show your boss that you have accomplished each of the GS-13 elements she specified. If she makes a reasonable case that you have not accomplished what she specified, then be open to going through another cycle of performing, documenting and meeting to review. You will know after a few months whether you are getting anywhere.

STEP 4. If your boss will not specify which of the GS-13 elements in your Position Description you failed to meet, or won’t specify what you can accomplish to show you are meeting them, or won’t give you an opportunity to accomplish those things, then it is time to use your agency’s grievance procedure. If your position is covered by a union, ask for their help with the grievance. Some agencies’ grievance procedures specifically exclude non-competitive promotions such as your career ladder promotion, but you can still grieve your boss’ failure to meet any requirements of agency policy or the union contract, such as refusing to specify what you need to accomplish to show you are performing at the GS-13 level of your Position Description.

Looking for another job is also an option, but you have not reached the point where it is the only option. You have steps to take to climb your career ladder.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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