Expert: Federal managers, deal with problem people!

More managers need to deal firmly with the underperformers and slackers in government, says an expert.

Firing a federal employee might be hard, but it's not impossible and managers should not avoid the pink slips when difficult workers call for it, according to an expert.

In a presentation at the American Management Association in Crystal City, Va., Stewart Liff, a human resources management expert and former fed with more than 30 years in government, gave a couple of pointers on how to deal with “problem people.”

Few managers are eager to truly take on a difficult employee, Liff said. He cited the findings of a survey that polled 14,000 federal employees. Asked how likely is management to deal with a problem employee, 87 percent of the surveyed employees said “not likely.” And the responses provided by the supervisors themselves were even worse: 91 percent replied they were “not likely” to deal an employee performing poorly.

Managers need to realize that “if you don’t deal with the bottom 10 percent in your organization, the top 10 percent gets frustrated and leaves. People want to be part of a winning organization,” Liff said. “If the government would change its culture in terms of poor performers or misconduct, that would do more for government performance than anything else” 

Most employees don’t want to see a coworker do virtually nothing while they, themselves, “are busting their hump and both get the same appraisals and the same bonus,” Liff said.

“It’s so critical in government that we deal with problem people,” he stressed, “and by the way, it’s no different in the private sector; they deal with problem people that drive everyone in their organization crazy as well.”

The first step to dealing with a problem employee is identifying who he or she is, which should be easy because “everyone in an organization knows who that is,” Liff said. Occasionally, the employee in question is unaware of being perceived a problem, but usually a meeting with a manager is all it takes.

Oftentimes, the government tends to “promote out or move around” difficult people, Liff said, without dealing with the actual problems.

"What I suggest to you effective immediately,” he told the audience of government HR professionals and managers, “is stop moving people around and start dealing with it. The first [step] is the toughest but once you deal with that, everyone gets the message. Everyone is watching you – no one is stupid. If they see you’re not serious, they’re not going to treat you seriously.”

Managers should also use the probationary period because it’s “the best tool you’ve got, and it’s a lot easier to get rid of someone during the probation than afterward,” Liff said. But managers should not wait until the very last day of the probationary period to deal with a problem, he stressed.

Taking a strong stance is key when it comes to terminating an employee. But because of the fear of litigation, many managers tend to cower in those situations and imagine a worst case scenario. 

But the worst case scenario is “not nearly as bad as you think,” Liff pointed out. Of every 100 federal employees who get fired, only 20 decide to appeal, he said. Of those 20 who appeal, they either go to the Merit Systems Protection Board or arbitration where 40 percent normally settle, Liff said.

“Your success rate before the MSPB is generally 80-85 percent, which means maybe two people [out of 10] get their job back,” he noted. “With arbitration, the success rate is not as good; it’s about four people out of a hundred who get their job back.”

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