The Washington Post

Dealing with poor performers in government

Tom Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. In this week’s column, he answers a reader question:

With budgets tightening, when are we going to get serious about dealing with poor performers in government? - GS-14 federal leader, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The problem in the eyes of many federal managers and supervisors is that it’s simply too hard to remove a poorly performing employee and not worth the effort. That’s the conventional wisdom.

Yet while it may not be easy, it isn’t impossible. And, federal managers have a statutory obligation to take action when warranted.

According to my colleague John Palguta, who spent 34 years working on federal human resource management issues, supervisors actually fire between 8,000 and 10,000 employees every year because of poor performance and misconduct. Palguta notes too that it’s probable an even larger number of employees chose to voluntarily resign instead of having a formal removal action taken.

Of course, the goal is to make sure employees are getting the job done, not to have a high body count of fired employees. Many supervisors who proactively manage their employees find that they’re capable of actually improving individual performance by setting clear expectations, providing the right equipment and training, or otherwise supporting the growth of their employees.

For supervisors ready to get serious about employees with chronic performance issues, here are some steps you can take.

Have the tough conversation. Too often supervisors assume that employees know their performance is unacceptable. Alternately, some supervisors may wish to avoid confrontation and the unpleasant task of telling employees that their performance or behavior is unacceptable. It is quite possible that these poor performers have been rated highly in the past and may actually believe they are doing a good job. As a starting point, have that difficult conversation with such employees and let them know their performance is a real problem and cannot continue.

Phone a friend. If that conversation doesn’t resolve the problem, outline the performance issue to your agency’s HR professionals and solicit advice about your next steps. You will need HR to process any termination, so engage them at the beginning to ensure that you’re dotting all the “i”s and crossing all the “t”s. You might also reach out to a fellow manager who has been successful in this area for suggestions.

Diagnose the problems and establish clear expectations. Talk with your employee and identify the cause of the problem. Is it a lack of training, a bad attitude or something else that’s fixable? If the problem is personal, refer them 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 -- for improving performance.

Document all issues. After you have established a set of goals, document whether they are being achieved. Create a file for the employee’s work products. Provide coaching to help the employee improve and track the conversations through emails to the employee. This is the most time-consuming part of dealing with a poor performer, but the most necessary. You cannot fire someone without the right documentation.

Take action. If you have spent a reasonable period of time trying to help an employee improve and see little or no progress, contact HR again and take action. If it comes down to a removal, HR may also recommend involving the Office of the General Counsel. One move I don’t recommend is transferring the poor-performing employee somewhere else, unless you legitimately see a good fit in another department. This is an all-too-frequent tactic that solves nothing and eventually comes home to roost when others realized you’ve passed along your deadwood to them. Firing someone should be the last resort. But when an employee is a consistent poor performer, rest assured that you can fire them.

The good news is that when managers take action - even just counseling employees - at least half of the time employees improve their performance.

Please share your ideas and experience dealing with poor performers in government in the comment section below. You can also email me at

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.

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