42. Minimum Standards

Standards. We live in a world of standards. We apply standards to everything: accounting, the environment, quality, behavior, health, safety, employment, trade, professionalism, food, transportation, technology, and the list goes on and on. We have standards we have to meet at work, standards we have to meet at home, and standards we set for ourselves and those we apply to others. Everything has a standard because everyone has a standard they apply to everything.

So, what exactly is a standard? In simplest terms, a standard is a measurement of value. Standards are established by law, regulation, policy, rule, consensus, or personal preference.

They can be strict or flexible, open or closed, formal or informal, high or low, published or unpublished. It’s enough to make your head spin! However, there’s one thing every standard has in common which is a point of minimum acceptance.

The minimum standard is a measurement of the lowest acceptable value; it’s the line between pass and fail, go and no-go. Most of the time, the minimum standard is a clearly established objective measure resting at the bottom of a tolerance threshold. But sometimes this measure is not quite so objective and unfortunately, this is especially true with regard to our most important resource: the human resource.

Organizations develop performance standards for its employees that reflect the level of work needed to achieve its mission goals. Objective standards establish the condition, behavior, and quality of employee performance elements. These elements are easily quantified, for example, a medical assistant who is required to perform a task with 90 percent accuracy, will clearly meet the standard or will not. Subjective standards, on the other hand, are established solely by the manager and in my experience, are inherently unfair.

Too often, managers are not satisfied with the minimum standard. They want or maybe even expect the employee to excel. This desire might be a selfish one, as the manager wants his or her unit to stand-out, or maybe the manager, out of genuine concern for the employee, wants to see him or her grow and develop. Whatever their motivation, these managers set the bar higher for their employees. So, what’s wrong with a manager raising expectations?

When a manager raises expectations for an employee above the minimum standard, he or she is essentially establishing a new minimum standard. The medical assistant who could meet the standard by performing a task to 90 percent accuracy, might fail before the manager who expects his or her employees to perform at 95 percent. Certainly, this would motivate some employees, but for others it could very well be demotivating and may also negatively impact their performance in other areas.

People take jobs and come to work for a number of reasons. What motivates one employee may not motivate another. One employee may be interested in upward mobility, while another might be content with simply putting in his 9-to-5 and going home. Although the former employee would likely rise to meet a manager’s raised expectations, the latter employee might just quit.

The bottom line is both of these employees have value. Both perform essential functions within the organization by virtue of the jobs they hold. Neither of these employees should be held to a higher standard of performance. An employee who is content with meeting the minimum standard has performed satisfactorily. And that’s okay. The employee who exceeds the minimum standard should be rewarded with a higher rating and maybe other opportunities within the organization. And that’s okay, too.

Remember, The minimum standard levels the playing field for all employees; it also serves to differentiate the average and the exceptional.

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