Whether a federal employee who performs poorly ever improves to an acceptable level may depend on how willing and knowledgeable his or her supervisor may be in trying to help out, according to a General Accounting Office survey.

About 86,500 federal employees -- 5.7 percent of the 1.57 million employees who were the subject of the survey -- were described as poor performers by their supervisors.

Of those, 62 percent either improved their performances, voluntarily left their positions or were demoted or removed from their jobs during the 1988 fiscal year.

But the remaining 38 percent stayed in their jobs, never improved their work and were not asked to leave.

"The real lesson is it's got to be up to the individual supervisor and their willingness" to deal with poor performers, said Bernard L. Ungar, director of GAO's Federal Human Resources and Management Issues branch. "If supervisors know what to do, the system is there to deal with poor performers," the report noted.

GAO investigators interviewed supervisors at two locations in 10 federal agencies, three state governments, three local governments, and 12 private corporations. It also surveyed 550, randomly chosen, supervisors at all three levels of government.

The GAO found that in the cases of employee whose performance improved, "supervisors had worked with the employees for periods of time ranging from less than a month to 44 months."

The report offers no comparison with the private sector, although Ungar said the findings are consistent with private sector information from consultants who worked with the survey group.

There are many more poor performers in the government than have been formally designated by managers, the report noted.

For example, data from the Office of Personnel Management shows that about 0.6 percent of all federal employees were rated below the "fully successful" designation in fiscal year 1988. Meanwhile, the GAO found the rate to be 5.7 percent for those surveyed during the same period.

The GAO estimates these employees received annual salaries of approximately $2.7 billion.

The GAO suggests that Congress enact legislation that more closely links pay increases to employee performance, as is the case now with the government's high-level employees under the Senior Executive Service.

Merit pay was originally a part of the civil service pay reform package discussed in Congress in the last several months and is likely to become the subject of congressional study next year.