Exploding the bureaucrat myth

What's the true story about poor performers in the federal work force? A study by the Office of Personnel Management, "Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story," reports that 3.7 percent of the federal work force are poor performers and 1.5 percent are "rehabilitated" poor performers.

"This study explodes the myth that poor performers are the rule rather than the exception in the federal government," said OPM director Janice Lachance.

OPM undertook this study to examine the widely held view that there are many poor performers in the federal government. The agency drew a random sample of 3,114 employees and interviewed their supervisors about the performance of all employees in their work units, about the causes of poor performance, what was done to address problems and what results had been achieved.

To make sure that terminology didn't get in the way of the truth, here's how OPM described "poor performers" to supervisors: "These are employees with whom you are seriously disappointed. You have little confidence that they will do their jobs right. You often have to redo their work, or you may have had to severely modify their assignments to give them only work that they can do, which is much less than you would otherwise want them to do. They are just not pulling their weight."

OPM interviewers encouraged the supervisors to talk expansively about their employees and rank them in terms of performance. The goal was to get enough information to make an independent determination as to whether an employee placed at the bottom of the rank order by his supervisor actually was a "poor performer."

The interviewers asked for and recorded examples of the employees' behavior to validate their supervisors' descriptions. While the OPM interviewers avoided prompting at first, the script suggested follow-up questions, such as "How much confidence do you have in this employee?" or, "How often do you have to redo this employee's work?"

In a separate sampling, OPM contacted supervisors who had successfully acted against a poor performer to record their experiences and the lessons they had learned. Finally, OPM looked at the private sector and the nonfederal public sector for points of comparison.

As mentioned above, OPM reported that poor performers make up 3.7 percent of the federal work force. It found that there are no good benchmarks for comparing this finding to what happens in the private or nonfederal public sectors, but it also reported that the figure is much lower than "common wisdom" would lead it to be. OPM concluded that there is not a serious performance problem in the federal government.I encourage readers to comment on this assessment. I have always felt that most federal workers are competent individuals. And since retiring and joining the private sector, I've run into plenty of "duds" outside government.

Elsewhere in the report, OPM found that supervisors of poor performers have not surrendered to cynicism or despair. Many reported that they are actively pursuing a solution through formal and informal means.

The report said supervisors reported success in rehabilitating a substantial number of workers who previously were poor performers.

It also said the legal protections available to employees in nonfederal public and private organizations often are similar to those in the federal system, and the trend seems to be toward increasing these protections.

Federal supervisors and managers may be yearning in vain for a dramatic easing of their burdens and responsibilities in this regard. OPM found that supervisors who pursued formal performance-based personnel actions described the experience in intensely emotional terms. The effort they put forth to overcome real and perceived obstacles during these actions was characterized by OPM as "heroic." (Others might characterize it as vengeful or sadistic.)

Of particular interest is supervisors' frequent perception that top management did not welcome their efforts, a finding that will come as no surprise to anyone who has been a federal supervisor for any length of time.

The report went on to say that supervisors typically receive a general orientation to poor performance regulations and procedures during their initial supervisory training. Supervisors were unanimous in saying that this approach is nearly useless, Well said.

Good management practices were key to many of the successes in rehabilitating poor performers. In some cases, it took coaching and assigning employees to a mentor or adviser to help them improve their performance.

In other cases, it took placing employees on performance-improvement plans, giving employees very candid counseling or redefining and clarifying their work responsibilities. The study also noted that giving underperforming employees a less-than-satisfactory performance rating can be effective.

In several instances, "last chance" agreements with poor performers produced results. (The last chance agreements provide confirmation that only two options are left—and one of them is removal.) In cases where the employees lacked appropriate job skills, additional training or development helped.

Supervisors reported that discipline or removal of a poor performer served as a wake-up call to other marginal performers.

Other benefits included improved employee morale, higher productivity, an increase in the supervisor's credibility with other employees and restored faith that the system works.

Study coordinator Peter Dickson said this study provides a realistic perspective on poor performers in the federal work force, and I'm inclined to agree.

The study noted that by believing the government work force is overrun with poor performers, the attention of federal managers has been diverted from other important issues and from developing a realistic approach to addressing poor performers.

I sure wish OPM would get this message out to the general public. It's time to shine up the tarnished image that feds have.

--Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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