Bad workers can cause a deep impact

In a recent column, I described a report from the Office of Personnel Management that suggested that very few federal workers are poor performers. The OPM report was based on a survey of 200 government supervisors who were asked to describe the performance of more than 3,000 of their subordinates. Most gave their subordinates high marks.

Now, a new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), entitled "Federal Supervisors and Poor Performers," says that although poor performers represent a relatively small percentage of the federal work force, they have a disproportionately large and negative impact on their organizations and help reinforce the perception that the government doesn't deal with its poor performers.

Observers have debated for years about how large a portion of the federal work force is made up of poor performers. The MSPB report, issued in July, appears to agree with recent OPM estimates that poor performers make up only 3.7 percent of the federal work force. MSPB also appears to believe there is no evidence that the relatively small number of formal removals and demotions that occur annually in the executive branch represents a sign of something radically amiss in the government's response to performance problems.

Not only does MSPB's report say that the percentage of poor performers does not seem to warrant a large number of such corrective actions, it also takes the position that rehabilitation of poorly performing employees is a logical and desirable first choice for supervisors dealing with unacceptable performance. The board contended that removal is the option of last resort.

MSPB contends that the resolution of performance problems by means other than removal is preferable to formal dismissal, and these other means are the ones most commonly used by federal supervisors. That view is supported by OPM's recent research that suggests that perhaps half of unacceptably performing employees can be rehabilitated.

My experience as a federal supervisor and manager suggests that federal supervisors rarely consider dismissal when attempts to rehabilitate an employee fail. For one thing, it's very time-consuming to go through all the steps required to fire someone. For another, it's not easy to accomplish. A federal employee is presumed innocent and competent unless proven otherwise. Often, that requires compiling a substantial file documenting efforts to rehabilitate the employee. Failure to take every one of the required steps can torpedo a supervisor's efforts.

In addition, trying to fire someone requires full support from the management chain. Quite often, that support is not there. As a result of the formidable obstacles confronting a supervisor with a poor performer, a supervisor often will elect to either reassign the employee to a position in which the employee can't do much damage, or in some instances, assign no duties to the employee and hope the employee will get the message and leave.

None of these "solutions" really work. Employee morale is severely undermined when hard-working employees see colleagues not pulling their weight but not suffer any consequences. It's hard to motivate people to do their very best when one of their colleagues is consistently reading the paper or making personal calls and getting away with it.

For a employee with a performance problem, being shunted aside is quite demeaning and does nothing for his or her morale. Forget about rehabilitation; that employee's psyche has been forever damaged, and the employee can no longer be an asset to the organization.

The MSPB report tends to confirm my observations. "If poor performance is not dealt with effectively, poor performers can have a negative impact much larger than their numbers would suggest," it said.

So what should be done? MSPB recommended that agencies do a better job of selecting people for supervisory jobs who have an aptitude for the human relations aspects of supervisory work.

This seems self-evident, and many agency selecting officials undoubtedly believe they are doing this. But I think this recommendation will have only a marginal impact on the problem. By MSPB's own admission, the federal corporate culture needs to be revamped, and that suggests that broad changes at the very highest levels of government are required. Will we ever see that? I sincerely doubt it.

The board also recommended that agency leaders assess the organization's internal environment to make sure they have not inadvertently created incentives and disincentives that result in poor performance that is tolerated by supervisors.

This recommendation has more meat to it. One way to partially achieve this goal is to evaluate supervisors based on how well they deal with poor performers. I admit that I don't know precisely how to do this, but I would hope that a human resources professional could find a way.

In a third recommendation, MSPB said agencies should not embellish the systems and procedures the law requires in ways that make it more burdensome to act against poor performers. I like this one. Agencies bend over backwards to appear fair, and often they overdo it.

The fourth recommendation said agencies should partner with their employees to develop innovations or modifications to current procedures to avoid more costly, time-consuming and potentially disruptive formal actions.

I don't like this one. You cannot command innovation. This is a cop-out. MSPB doesn't know how to fix the system, so it's saying, "You figure it out." Well maybe, but don't hold your breath.

The final recommendation said agencies should examine the methods they use to select nonsupervisory employees and the degree to which those methods result in good matches of people and jobs.

This is another weak recommendation. It sounds good, but really says nothing other than, "Do a better recruiting job." It does not say how to improve the process.

MSPB has recognized a pervasive problem, and it deserves credit for that. Unfortunately, the solutions they offer are unlikely to do much to alter the federal landscape. Policy makers will have to come to grips with the reality that there is no bottom line in the government workplace. Without a bottom line or an environment with substantial negative consequences for poor performance, you can't expect a significant change. I know of no way to alter this basic fact, but I invite your comments.

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


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