Tips for dealing with poor performers in government

April 15

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As federal managers know all too well, the process of dealing with poor performers is fundamentally flawed, failing to serve the best interests of both the agencies and employees.

The time and effort required to remove or discipline an employee is daunting, and often discourages managers from taking action. Managers are not always properly trained and sometimes lack the will to act because they're concerned about the personal toll and its disruptive impact.

At the same time, large numbers of federal employees believe that high performance is neither recognized nor rewarded, and that poor performers are not held accountable. This situation does not bode well for effective government or a high level of workplace morale.

Just take a look at the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. About 70 percent of employees do not believe promotions in their work unit are based on merit, and only 43 percent of employees surveyed feel as though they are recognized for doing a good job. Worst of all, only 26 percent of employees believe that agency leaders are taking steps to deal with poor performers who cannot or will not improve.

Although the percentage of federal employees who have serious performance problems is relatively small, they can have a disproportionately large and negative impact on their organization if the problem is not addressed.

That’s one of the reasons why my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, along with Booz Allen Hamilton, recently released a report – “Building the Enterprise: A New Civil Service Framework” – outlining a vision for a more modern civil service system, including improved performance management.

It will take time for legislative and executive reform to fix the process for dealing with poor performers, so in the meantime federal leaders need to use the current system to its fullest extent possible and muster the courage to clarify roles, responsibilities and expectations for all employees, especially those failing short of performance standards.

Where do you start? Here are some ideas:

Admit you have a problem. You can only make progress once you acknowledge that something is wrong. Too often supervisors assume that employees know their performance is unacceptable. More likely, poor performers have been rated highly in the past and have no clue.

Make it clear that the status quo is unacceptable. Talk with the poor performing employee and identify the cause of the problem. Is it a bad attitude? A lack of clarity regarding performance expectations? A lack of training? If the problem is personal, refer the individual to an Employee Assistance Program offering professional help. If the issues are work related, establish a set of SMART goals — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goals —for improving performance. You’ll need to invest in helping the individual improve.

Consult your HR experts. If the conversation and early signs don't seem to be working, consult your agency's human resources professionals to outline the performance issue and solicit advice. You will need HR to process any termination, so engage them early in the process. I guarantee there’s someone in your HR shop who knows the ins and outs of dealing with poor-performing employees and is willing to help.

Document. After you have established and documented a set of goals, record whether or not they are being met. Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be boxes full of documents, just a clear record. Create a file for the employee's work product. Provide coaching to help the individual improve and track the conversations through emails to the employee. This can be the most time-consuming part of dealing with a poor performer, but it’s needed just in case formal action is required.

If the employee is not a good fit, discuss an exit strategy. If an employee is unable or unwilling to do the job, he may already know that there is an issue and may be as unhappy about it as you are. Discuss the possibility of finding a different job outside of the organization or outside of government that is a better match for the individual’s interests and skills. The responsibility for taking action is with the employee. A deadline should be set, but if you can help by providing advice or assistance and giving the employee some time, it could end up in a “win-win” situation.

When it’s time to take action, just do it. If you have spent a reasonable period of time trying to help an employee improve and you see little or no progress, contact HR again and take action. Firing someone should be the last resort, but when an employee is a consistent poor performer, rest assured, you can remove them. Between 8,000 and 10,000 federal employees are involuntarily separated from federal service every year because of poor performance or misconduct, and the actions generally are upheld on appeal.

The good news is that when managers take action -- even just counseling employees -- about half of the time employee performance improves to an acceptable level or even better.

I encourage you to share your ideas or experience dealing with poor performers in federal government by posting a comment below or sending an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Read also:

Report on civil service reform includes controversial recommendations

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