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Expert: Federal managers, deal with problem people!

Firing a federal employee might be hard, but it's not impossible and managers should not avoid the pink slips when difficult workers call for it, according to an expert.

In a presentation at the American Management Association in Crystal City, Va., Stewart Liff, a human resources management expert and former fed with more than 30 years in government, gave a couple of pointers on how to deal with “problem people.”

Few managers are eager to truly take on a difficult employee, Liff said. He cited the findings of a survey that polled 14,000 federal employees. Asked how likely is management to deal with a problem employee, 87 percent of the surveyed employees said “not likely.” And the responses provided by the supervisors themselves were even worse: 91 percent replied they were “not likely” to deal an employee performing poorly.

Managers need to realize that “if you don’t deal with the bottom 10 percent in your organization, the top 10 percent gets frustrated and leaves. People want to be part of a winning organization,” Liff said. “If the government would change its culture in terms of poor performers or misconduct, that would do more for government performance than anything else” 

Most employees don’t want to see a coworker do virtually nothing while they, themselves, “are busting their hump and both get the same appraisals and the same bonus,” Liff said.

“It’s so critical in government that we deal with problem people,” he stressed, “and by the way, it’s no different in the private sector; they deal with problem people that drive everyone in their organization crazy as well.”

The first step to dealing with a problem employee is identifying who he or she is, which should be easy because “everyone in an organization knows who that is,” Liff said. Occasionally, the employee in question is unaware of being perceived a problem, but usually a meeting with a manager is all it takes.

Oftentimes, the government tends to “promote out or move around” difficult people, Liff said, without dealing with the actual problems.

"What I suggest to you effective immediately,” he told the audience of government HR professionals and managers, “is stop moving people around and start dealing with it. The first [step] is the toughest but once you deal with that, everyone gets the message. Everyone is watching you – no one is stupid. If they see you’re not serious, they’re not going to treat you seriously.”

Managers should also use the probationary period because it’s “the best tool you’ve got, and it’s a lot easier to get rid of someone during the probation than afterward,” Liff said. But managers should not wait until the very last day of the probationary period to deal with a problem, he stressed.

Taking a strong stance is key when it comes to terminating an employee. But because of the fear of litigation, many managers tend to cower in those situations and imagine a worst case scenario. 

But the worst case scenario is “not nearly as bad as you think,” Liff pointed out. Of every 100 federal employees who get fired, only 20 decide to appeal, he said. Of those 20 who appeal, they either go to the Merit Systems Protection Board or arbitration where 40 percent normally settle, Liff said.

“Your success rate before the MSPB is generally 80-85 percent, which means maybe two people [out of 10] get their job back,” he noted. “With arbitration, the success rate is not as good; it’s about four people out of a hundred who get their job back.”

Posted by Camille Tuutti on November 2, 2011 at 8:32 AM

Reader comments

Sun, Mar 25, 2012 Nancy

After 42 years working all I see is legions and legions of inept management and it never seems to get any better. What happened to American ingenuity and success?? STIFLED by BAD MANAGEMENT.

Mon, Nov 28, 2011

MSPB is supposed to be out there to protect employees from the Prohited Personnel Practices. I read the report that was sent to the President and congress by MSPB and it stated that 70 percent of government employees stated they did not get their job based on knowledge, skills and/or abilities but who they knew. My Agencies just rotates the Supervisor to another division if they have an EEO complaint against them. They have abused the SCEP program for years to hire friends and family members. The most recent SCEP hire was a golf pro to one of the managers and was brought on as a GS-5/7/9/11. I used to be part of the TOP 10 percent of government employees but when you see 23 years of repeated abuses of the Merit System at your agency you start to count the days to retirement.

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 CPA northeast

In the past, these problem supervisors at IRS were dealt with because there were good people in management. For example, when his whole group filed grievances against this supervisor, they removed him from this supervisory position for 5 years and put him in "statistics" at IRS. Although he should have been fired, at least they did something. Current management, though, moved him back, just moved him to a new location. Kind of like what was done with the priests - just a new location, with new victims. He falsifies files, can't even keep his few employees straight, even in their evaluations, acts like he's on drugs, and others claim there were even worse things going on in his office, Those who moved him back should be fired, too. What a crime!

Sat, Nov 5, 2011 Jack

THIS BEARS REPEATING: "It's not always at the management level that it fails, but at the Headquarters Level and the Civil Rights Office. It's amazing what employees can continue to get away with, because they know that they've done it over and over in the past, no matter how many times they've been brought up on charges. Management at the Top Level, Civil Rights and OPM, need to be looked at also, not just the Managers in the field. That's why over time, managers in the field get so frustrated, because nothing at the higher levels are ever done, so they give UP!" In my experience, it's repeatedly been members of the 'under-represented' groups (i.e. women, black people, hispanic people) who manage to get away with laziness and belligerence. In every case I've seen where a manager tried to correct the problem, they failed and were made to look like idiots. These people have learned to play the system against itself and even the politicians are scared of 'em. "EEO" and "afirmative action" actually ALLOW preference and favoritism and renders pay-for-performance a big joke. Managers are stupid to go up against even the most legitimate negative performance issues. Why try? I finally retired after witnessing repeated anti-integrity behavior in DHS-CBP. And, by the way, that's the agency responsible for securing our borders: CBP has one of the three lowest job satisfaction ratings in the federal government.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011

I AM a top 10 percent employee that is frustrated and walking out the door. I am taking a huge risk, but my health and my family can no longer suffer. Inept supervision is the cause. Pull it together! Our nation depends on our success!

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