GAO reports on "poor performers"

GAO report on "Issues Related to Poor Performance in the Federal Workplace"

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A new government report gives a mixed picture of underperforming federal employees.

The Government Accountability Office issued a 34-page report,, last week on the extent and causes of what GAO refers to as “the poor performer” issue. The report makes several recommendations and offers some new data about a problem that is often cited as a reason for changing current civil service rules.

GAO found, for example, that federal agencies with reputations as high-performing organizations, such as the Naval Sea Systems Command Warfare Center’s Newport division and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, continually review and revise their performance management procedures.

Agencies that have experimented with new personnel systems are still learning how to link pay to performance most effectively, GAO auditors found.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, requested the research.

The review focused on tools and approaches for addressing employees’ poor performance and on legal and interpersonal impediments to dealing with the problem. GAO cited results of agency surveys showing that federal managers often hesitate to deal with poor performers because doing so can trigger a complicated and time-consuming appeals process.

According to the report, 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 some surveys, federal managers have also stated their dislike of confrontation as a reason for not dealing with problem employees.

In addition, GAO found that supervisors often avoid taking action again a poor performer for fear that the employee will file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Agency actions against poor-performing employees are governed by chapters 43 and 75 of the United States Code. Those provisions require agency officials to provide, among other things, 30 days’ advanced 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 or “a preponderance of evidence” to support a decision to fire or otherwise punish a nonprobationary employee for unacceptable job performance.


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