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By Steve Kelman

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Forget pay for performance: Here are the reforms execs really want

I am teaching in an executive education program for Senior Executive Service members right now, and, at the request of several of them, sat down for an informal lunch discussion about federal human resources issues.
I was teaching about performance measurement in government and had told the class that we would be discussing only issues of organization, unit, or team performance metrics, not individual performance appraisals. Some of the SESers told me they wanted to talk about pay for performance and issues related to performance appraisals, so we decided to have lunch and discuss them informally, outside of the class time.
There were five SESers around the table, and they all quickly agreed that, given a choice to have only one tool, they would much rather change the system to make it easier to get rid of an incompetent or unmotivated employee than to be able to use pay for performance.

It wasn't even a close call — bad employees are a disaster at the workplace. Pay for performance might, or might not, be nice to have but would be unlikely to come close to delivering the same benefits.

We also talked about issues of due process protection. I made a suggestion off the top of my head about giving a poorly performing employee the choice of one of two protections, but not both: To require the manager to go through the various performance improvement plan steps but have no right to appeal, or to keep their appeal rights but allow the manager to make a termination decision without all the prior actions and paperwork. The SESers liked the idea, but one noted that if there was an appeal right — at least under the current system — you would need to have all the performance improvement plan steps to win the appeal. So if such a system were to be implemented, appeal documentation would need to be simplified and, obviously, not require all the performance improvement plan steps.
One of the SESers suggested a different change in the system, especially for the upcoming tight budget environment. It should be easier, the suggestion went, to share an employee between two offices (presumably physically nearby). There might be enough work in each office for a person working part-time, but not really for a full-time person.

We didn't talk about this, but on a slightly related note, I am guessing that in this budget environment many agencies are going to be looking more closely at reducing their space requirements, including introducing some form of "hotelling" for employees who travel a lot. GSA is strongly moving in this direction in their "extreme challenge" dramatically to cut back their space usage.
We spent some time talking about the most underutilized hiring program in the federal government, the Student Career Experience Program, which allows students who have accumulated a certain minimum number of internship hours while in school to be converted, at the agency's option, to full-time employees after graduation, without normal government rules. Aside from easing the hiring process, this program has a key advantage that it allows the government to get a look-see at the person's work skills and motivations before making any commitment to hire. Companies, law firms, and consulting firms use this hiring route all the time to hire most of their new staff.

Those who had used the program reported great experience, but not all the SESers even knew about it. Why doesn't OPM do more to encourage use of this fantastic program? (Here's a link to learn more.) My understanding is that the administration will soon propose some changes to SCEP, but that these will strengthen, not weaken, the program. Finally, there was also agreement around the table that, in the budget environment we will be facing, the government should make more use of part-time high school or college students to do less-skilled work.
While we're on the subject of the federal workforce, I want to express thanks to the FAA runway safety inspectors who are working right now without pay while Congress bickers over the FAA authorization (presumably they will be paid once the authorization dispute is resolved). Every American should be grateful for the public spirit of these employees, who are so different from the stereotype ignorant people have about our federal workforce. Thank you, safety inspectors!

Posted on Aug 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Mon, Aug 15, 2011 Mike Mintzer Washington, DC

Only happened to me once, at a different agency than where I am now. New Asst Dir cme in, forced out all the knowledgeable top people (SES), abolished several units, and the 15 - 20 GS-13 & GS-14 action officer/analysts were piece-mealed out to other units. After 6 months doing a simple weekly report, I found another job. What's the cliche: "The good people leave first -- they can get a job anywhere."

Wed, Aug 10, 2011 Chuck Viator Wash, D. C.

This is a very thoughtful article with some interesting responses. IMHO there are two truths regrading performance: 1)People do the best they can with what they have, and 2) People preform based on the incentives provided. Those two truths support having a management structure and work environment that leads to positive outcomes. Also managers need to measure outcomes at the individual and the aggregate levels. This is really a much longer discussion if improvement is desired.

Tue, Aug 9, 2011

Career management is the employee’s responsibility and no one else’s. If employees are not happy, engaged or whatever, then they should be shown the door. I’ve seen the morale of too many departments by destroyed by management who are unwilling or unable to deal with effects of poor performers on other employees, who then flee.

Tue, Aug 9, 2011 Alexandria, VA

While it is not the fault of the employee when "After all you can't blame someone for surfing the web 30 hours a week when you only give them 10 hours of work and tell them to stretch it out." It is surely an indication that the employee is either not needed at all or that the position could easily be consolidated with 1-3 other positions. In private industry, if there is not enough work to keep someone busy, they are laid off or simply let go. It doesn't matter that it's not their fault, we simply don't have the money to waste.

Tue, Aug 9, 2011

Comments here are a sad, but often true, commentary on the state of the civil service. Too many people get recognized just for showing up. Or get awards for doing an energetic, thoughtful job. Which should be the norm anyway. Think Bell Curve. No one in the civil service does because that distribution is too scary. SESers, in my experience, are generally better than GSers, but they have their fair share of those who should be canned, and a similar amount on the other end of the performance spectrum. Why do Departments and Agencies not act to weed the SES and nurture the good ones?

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