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Federal Coach: Poor performers — Dealing with performance issues in federal government

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

In the newest season of NBC’s The Office, Andy Bernard – self-admittedly the worst paper salesman at Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton branch – has been promoted to office manager.

As a fan of the show, I find his unorthodox management style pretty hilarious. To motivate the crew and impress his superiors, Andy recently promised the employees that they could tattoo whatever they wanted on his derriere if they met brand new and extremely high company sales goals. The tactic was a huge success, with even the primary office slacker and the most disgruntled employee jumping on the bandwagon.

In real life, no executive would expect a supervisor to go to such an extreme or sanction this type of management approach. But senior leaders are expected to motivate their employees and they are also expected to take action when employees are not doing their jobs and efforts to bring about change fail.

In the federal workplace, unfortunately, employees believe that their leaders too often turn a blind eye to those who are not meeting basic performance standards, and that is no laughing matter. According to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data just released, only 30 percent of federal employees believe that their leaders take steps to deal with poor performers.

It’s a supervisor’s responsibility to take action regarding poor performers – both as a team leader and as a steward of taxpayer dollars – even as difficult and cumbersome as the process may be. The percentage of poor performers in the federal government is small, but they have a disproportionately large and negative impact on an organization if unaddressed.

Many of the federal leaders I come into contact with accept responsibility, and also acknowledge that they should do more but say they need more support from their senior leaders and human resources. They add that they have tried to do the right thing around dealing with poor performers but have not been supported. As result, they’re left scarred by the experience even when they prevail.

To help federal managers deal with poor performers effectively, here are a few ideas for senior leaders on how to best support their subordinate supervisors in this effort:

  • Let employees know help is available for individuals with performance issues. The first goal in dealing with poor performance is not to remove employees but to help them be successful in the job. It should be clear to all employees that help is available if needed to perform well. It should be equally clear, however, that if ultimately an employee cannot or will not perform at an acceptable level, they cannot remain in the job.
  • Tell your supervisors, “I’ve got your back. Tell me what you need.” As a senior federal leader, if you want to effectively address the issue of poor performers once and for all, you need to understand your supervisors’ challenges. Is there a knowledge gap on the part of the supervisor? Is it a fear of complaints or lawsuits? Is it about time constraints? Do they need help from HR or the General Counsel’s office? Find out what types of situations and obstacles they are facing, and provide them with support.
  • Educate your supervisors on the process. Even experienced federal managers can find the process of dealing with a poor performer difficult to understand. Take time and resources to bust the myths that circulate in every agency. Give your supervisors concrete knowledge and practical tools that they can use throughout the process. Provide access to subject matter experts and/or other leaders who’ve successfully dealt with poor performers and can share their experience and stories.
  • Be ready to step in with direct support. There’s a difference between words and actions, and you need to support your supervisors in taking action. Find the very best experts on dealing with performance issues in your agency and staff who have a reputation for providing concrete assistance to line managers. If needed, bring them together as a SWAT team dedicated to helping your supervisors deal with performance issues. You might also dedicate an email address and a voicemail line that they can contact 24/7, and ensure that they will begin receiving assistance within the next business day. This approach will send a clear signal to your supervisors that their agency’s senior leadership is taking the matter of poor performers seriously.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Oct 17, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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Reader comments

Mon, Nov 7, 2011

No matter how hard I work and what awards and recognition I receive from professional societies and outside organizations, my supervisor has given me the same rating and no special awards. My current supervisor is unable to provide me the resources I need to get the job done. If I ask her for any resources, I hear a lot of spin and hot air but no resources. Employees cannot perform when agency managers do not provide them the resources needed to do the job!

Tue, Nov 1, 2011

Supervisors cannot discipline poor performers in federal government due to the lack of HR support. The entire HR system is severely broken. All the poor performer has to do is file a complaint and the HR division has tried, convicted, and crucified the manager trying to get rid of the problem employee without getting the facts of a case. Fix the HR divisions in government to protect and support the management instead of the problem employees.

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 USDA

I don't believe poor performers are as big of an issue as who management considers to be poor performers. Based on my last two performance reviews, I'd be considered a poor performer. I got those reviews after taking over the duties of an employee two levels above my grade, doing that job plus added duties in 20 hours less a week than it took them and without a full time helper of my current level that they had to assist them. Most manager would have considered that to be outstanding work, mine didn't. Conversely, I've seen an employee stop doing her job completely for half a year and get great performance reviews. Based on those two instances, our top performer was someone who didn't do their job at all and one of our worst performers was someone doing work two grades above their level.

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 FELISA SAN DIEGO CA

TO SUPERVISORS; TREAT YOUR EMPLOYEES WITH RESPECT.mOTIVATE THEM TO DO EXCELLENT WORK TO MEET YOUR GOALS AND MISSION BY, RECOGNITION, EITHER,START WITH A PAT ON THE BACK OF HOW GOOD THEY DID THEIR JOB, AWARD THEM WITH NON-CASH AWARD IF BUDGET IS TIGHT,I.E CERTIFICATE OF APPRECIATION, COMMENDATION,OR CASH, DURING MEETINGS. RECOGNIZE THEIR GREAT ACCOMPLISHMENT AND STATE HOW THEIR WORK CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR GOALS AND MISSION WHICH BENEFITTED YOUR ORGANIZATION. THIS TOOL OF MOTIVATION WORKS, DO IT, AND SEE THE RESULT, YOU'LL BE SURPRISE. R/FLB

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 Sabra Baltimore

Really--I'd love to see it at my facility. I was talking to someone the other day, who came from another facility, who has been trying to change the mindset without much success. "It's the way it's always been done." Even worse is when the supervisor is the problem. Then you're really in fire.

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