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The 3 most common complaints about federal managers

Without a doubt, the most common complaint we hear from federal employees is that some federal managers are falling down on the job.

Perhaps they lack motivation, due to the ineffective management by their own higher-ups. Or maybe they simply lack the necessary know-how, having been promoted into their jobs for reasons unrelated to their leadership skills and never given access to the appropriate training.

But whatever the reason, readers say, some federal managers are failing to fulfill their obligations to their employees and the organizations they serve.

Here are the three management failings that readers have mentioned most frequently in the past six months (also be sure to read “The first affliction of the federal workforce: Low expectations”).

1. Freeloaders are given a free pass.

Online shopping, napping at the desk, smoke breaks that never end — yet the boss looks the other way. Nothing irritates hardworking employees more than seeing their co-workers gold-bricking with impunity.

“In one agency I worked in, a co-worker did literally nothing for the last three years of their career but read the paper, go shopping during two-hour lunches and leave early most days,” one reader wrote.

One problem, as many readers have pointed out, is that the process for firing employees is so cumbersome, managers are not inclined to go through it except in the most egregious cases. But what counts as egregious? According to some readers, the only slam-dunk firing offense is not showing up at all.

“The statement ‘You can’t fire a government employee’ is too close to being accurate,” Anonymous wrote. “Most government employees work hard and do the best they can at their jobs, but with any large organization, there’s the bottom percentage that needs to be let go for the overall good. The government doesn’t do this! Instead, we relocate them to less demanding but equal-paying jobs, or in the worst case promote to move them on.”

2. Conscientious workers go unrewarded.

On one level, this is the flipside of the gold-bricking problem. Some employees work diligently, even going above and beyond without being asked, while others goof off with a vengeance. Yet at the end of the pay period, everyone gets a check. Where’s the motivation in that?

The problem runs even deeper. It’s a classic management maxim that you should reward the behavior you would like to see repeated. Often the only reward for hard work is more work, as managers shift duties from the underachievers to the overachievers.

The net result is a split workforce, with one side overworked and irritated and the other underemployed and dispirited. In time, underachievement has a way of becoming the norm, with newcomers slowly succumbing to good old-fashioned peer pressure.

“Hard workers are ridiculed as 'showing off' or trying to show up those who have been in their jobs for decades,” one reader wrote. “Initiative is viewed with suspicion and distrust by lifers guarding their positions instead of trying to efficiently and effectively do their jobs. It's depressing and discouraging.”

3. Managers do not trust their employees.

This theme often comes up in discussions about telework. Many readers have said they are not allowed to work from home for the simple reason that their managers do not trust them to work without direct supervision.

This mindset, known in polite company as butt-in-chair management, has several fallacies, readers point out. First, it equates showing up with working, which doesn’t add up, as noted above.

Second, and perhaps more disturbing, is that it reflects a lack of meaningful performance measures, which is a problem even if the employees work in the office.

“Butt-in-chair management should have gone out with the sweatshop,” Thomas J. Kesolits wrote. “Managers not worth their salt think that way. In this modern age when people can work from anyplace, it is not how they do their work, it is what is accomplished.”

But how do you assess what is accomplished? As several readers pointed out, a manager who is not trained in developing performance metrics is likely to take the path of least resistance, settling for quantitative measures that reveal nothing about the quality of work.

In effect, managers who distrust their employees usually belie a lack of confidence in their own management skills — a real Freudian dilemma if there ever was one.

Now what?

A reader named Mark offered an inventive approach to forcing managers to actually manage. First, they should be given hiring and firing authority within their section of the organization. But each section should be given statements of work, with associated performance measures, against which the manager should be evaluated.

The combination of the two would motivate managers to step up. If that were to happen, the manager’s job might actually get easier.

“You will attract the achievers and the trendsetters because they will see the challenge instead of the patient, plodding along from paycheck to paycheck just because the money is there,” Mark wrote.

But other readers suggested a simpler solution: management training.

“As someone who has worked in both environments, I can attest that the real factor is that every corporation that I worked for had a comprehensive management development program,” Al Banks wrote. “Regardless of the demands of the position, attendance was mandatory upon designation as a supervisor. This reflects the organizations' acknowledgment of the importance of people, and the successful management of same, to the success of the organization.”

Nathan Abse recently raised this very issue on the "Gov Careers" blog. He noted that the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers has come out in support of H.R. 5522, a bill that would require agencies to provide management training for all new supervisors.

The argument for management training made by IFPTE and others is fairly straightforward. Many people are promoted to management positions on the strength of their technical know-how, only to find that their success now rides on people skills they never had a chance to develop.

Training is a good first step for front-line employees, but it only goes so far, a reader from Alaska wrote in a comment at the "Gov Careers" blog.

“My first management position struck at me personally because while I thought I was ready for the position of managing and supervising, I found I was lacking many necessary skills (other than technical) that diminished my effectiveness,” the reader wrote. “It was only through the ‘school of hard knocks’ and team support from my subordinates that I was able to reach a worthy level of proficiency.”

Another reader agreed.

“Training does not 'fix' problems,” Joni Daniels wrote. “Going to training is not a 'stand-alone' answer for managers. It's after the training where the accountability for skill development takes place. Coaching, performance management, follow-up clinics, feedback and holding people accountable for translating content into skill development — that is how you leverage your training dollar.”

What do you think? Could training close that gap?

What other suggestions do you have for improving the quality of management in federal offices, given the constraints of the current system?

In particular, in lieu of a full-fledged pay-for-performance system — and assuming no change in firing policies — how can managers do a better job of managing underachieving employees?

Posted on Aug 05, 2010 at 12:18 PM


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