Pay won't fix everything

Managers need to do their part

Workforce specialists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology say the agency's pay-for-performance system has been effective in helping the agency hire and retain outstanding employees. It has been less effective in motivating or disciplining poor performers.

"We set it up to retain our good employees," said Helena Inman, manager of NIST's performance management program. "It wasn't really set up to get rid of poor performers." NIST officials adopted a pay-for-performance system in October 1997 as a permanent alternative to the federal pay system known as the General Schedule.

In dealing with the problem of poor performers, Inman said, better training for managers has had a greater positive impact than the pay-for-performance system.

Managers have always heard that it is difficult to fire federal employees, Inman said. But often those managers simply don't know how to deal with marginal or unsatisfactory employees. For them, "it's just easier to reassign somebody who's not working out," she said.

A June 21 briefing prepared by the Government Accountability Office gives a mixed picture of how federal managers deal with underperforming federal employees, a problem that is often cited as a reason for changing current civil service rules.

The GAO briefing focuses on tools and approaches for addressing employees' poor performance and on interpersonal and legal impediments to dealing with the problem. According to the briefing, some federal supervisors won't act to discipline poor performers because supervisors believe that higher-level managers and human resources officials will not back them up. In surveys, federal managers also often state their dislike of confrontation as a reason for not dealing with problem employees.

In addition, GAO cites results of agency surveys showing that federal managers often hesitate to deal with an employee performing below standards because doing so can trigger a complicated and time-consuming appeals process. Supervisors frequently avoid taking action for fear that the worker will file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Formal agency actions against poor-performing employees are governed by Title 5, Chapters 43 and 75 of the United States Code. Those provisions require agency officials to provide, among other things, 30 days' advance notice to an employee and an opportunity to respond before any disciplinary action is taken.

Those same provisions also require an agency to produce substantial evidence to support a decision to fire or otherwise punish a nonprobationary employee for unacceptable job performance.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of that committee's Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee, requested the GAO briefing. Committee members will use it as they explore new ways to improve the civil service system, said Drew Crockett, the committee's deputy communications director.

The lawmakers' objective, he said, is to ensure that the federal government can continue to draw talented, committed Americans to public service and retain them.

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