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By Steve Kelman

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Making the best of sequestration

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In order to maintain agency work during sequestration, managers need to be empowered to deal with poor performing employees, Steve Kelman writes. (Stock image)

Over the past few weeks, I have periodically felt slightly weird in writing my blog posts. Here I was continuing to write my normal posts about how to improve organizational performance and management, as if the situation in agencies was just proceeding as normal, while many of my readers were focused on the possibility of furloughs and the other disruptions of an increasingly certain sequestration.

So the first thing I want to do in this post is to say to my readers in and around government that, as one taxpayer, I am grateful for what you do and saddened that you are about to be run over by a rogue bus. As I say to my executive education classes, there is no group for whom the gap between what people are actually achieving and accomplishing, and what folks out there think you are achieving and accomplishing, is so great as for most U.S. civil servants. I’m not sure what my sympathy will buy – especially for those employees who really can’t afford furlough-induced pay cuts. But I want to express it anyway.

At the same time, this wouldn’t be my blog, and Steve wouldn’t be Steve, if I didn’t also discuss this in a managerial challenge context. I think agencies need to be ready for the likelihood that sequestration itself will last for a while, and that, even more importantly, tight agency budgets will last for a very long time even after the sequester is "fixed."

In this situation, as far as personnel expenses (S&E in government budget lingo) are concerned, agencies simply must look for alternatives to furloughs for wide swaths of staff. Organizations, and managers, will need to start – and should be starting now, on the assumption this fiscal environment is not going away – thinking more strategically about how to bring down personnel costs.

For managers and the human resources system, this means becoming more serious about taking on poor performers. For organizations, this means making tough choices about units that need to downsize or even be eliminated.

Most federal managers will say that they could absorb a 10 percent personnel cost cutback without too much impact, if they could choose how to take it – that is, by getting rid of poor performers. Needless to say, in the real world of federal personnel law, this is incredibly easier to say than to do. In this environment, some federal managers will be willing to endure the hassle, but probably some system changes are needed to help managers who would like to act.

With hiring declining in this environment, shouldn’t there be some HR staff resources that can be freed up to help managers with the process of getting poor performers to shape up or ship out? Isn’t this a time for OPM to examine its regulations in this area to see how much the process can be streamlined and deregulated without statutory change?

The bottom line is that the alternative to dealing with poor performers is to have the brunt of the cutbacks fall on good performers. This is wrong morally, and it increases the organizational performance penalty from the cutbacks.

A second alternative to furloughing a lot of people is a smaller number of Reductions in Force. RIFs reflect the reality of a permanently tighter budget environment. The heads of units need to start looking for ways to re-engineer business processes to reduce unnecessary steps or in other ways take out staff requirements. Higher-level managers need to ask whether there are whole units that, in this environment, simply can’t be justified and should be eliminated. Again, keep in mind that the alternative is worse: an unfair, impossible world of furloughs.

Posted on Feb 28, 2013 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 Steve Kelman

Thanks for comments! Clearly, it's not easy to get rid of a poor performer. My question is how helpful it would be if a manager could get HR staff (freed from work on hiring) to help out with the paperwork and the process. BTW, I asked a number of participants in an exec ed program going on now at the Kennedy School about what percentage of their employees they would characterize as poor performers, and the average answer was about a quarter -- which is really a problem.

Fri, Mar 1, 2013


Fri, Mar 1, 2013 Shaun

I like your report Steve. You speak from the heart. In my microcosm of Federal Employment, I always felt that I have been productive, working on missions and systems that mattered. I have been blessed with the opportunity to do much of the actual hands-on engineering required, and I took much pride in my work. On major acquisitions, I gave support in writing Specifications, attending Critical Design Reviews, and doing Tests and Validations. Until very recently I have always felt that my work and contributions mattered. Now I feel a great shadow is sweeping over me and my co-workers, as Project Managers have become silent and our agency has NO sense of direction. I find myself charting my own course. I assign myself the work that needs to be done. I report weekly on what I have accomplished. Still there is silence and no feedback. It is now as if I do not matter, and our once proud mission is irrelevant.

Fri, Mar 1, 2013

"For managers and the human resources system, this means becoming more serious about taking on poor performers." Really Steve? Clearly you jest or have your head up your a**! This tactic may work in an excepted service agency, but, you have forgotten that in most agencies you better place those poor performers on PIPs first and carefully follow protocol. In agencies where federal labor unions exist you can throw that out the window because those poor performers aren't going anywhere! As an Employee Relations Officer of an agency I must remind you that it's far easier to discipline/remove based on "conduct" not "performance"

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