What GAO Got Right in Its Report on the Federal Workforce

By on March 15, 2015 in Current Events, Human Resources with 41 Comments

I’m sure lots of people have read or at least looked at the General Accounting Office’s March 9th report titled “Improved Supervision and Better Use of Probationary Periods Are Needed to Address Substandard Employee Performance.”

GAO has done a pretty good job of addressing some of the issues facing supervisors who must deal with employee problems.  I must say the report is a little naïve regarding the role of Federal unions in this process.  Does the government really want to let the unions under the tent on management development?  The inclusion of the unions as the only listed stakeholders in the smacks of political correctness (one wonders if it’s in there at the behest of somebody’s politicos).  The recommendations really should call for the perrticipation of managerial organizations such as SEA, the Federal Managers Association and other such groups whose purpose is to strengthen supervision. In this writer’s experience, federal unions are less transparent regarding their motives for participation.  If we are going to include those outside the Federal government, why not reach out to a state with a similar complexity of rules governing its civil service as well.

No regular reader of my articles will doubt that I have some suggestions to OPM on how to carry out GAO’s recommendations to them.  Let’s look at the recommendations:

Recommendation #1

To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers and to help ensure supervisors obtain the skills needed to effectively conduct performance management responsibilities, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should assess the adequacy of leadership training that agencies provide to supervisors.

The above is a good start.  I’d like to make some further suggestions on the above in that OPM do the following in dealing with this recommendation:

  1. Involve focus groups of supervisors and managers who have actually taken actions to identify issues.
  2. Create one or more working groups of those in management who have actually served as proposing or deciding officials.
  3. Encourage managers with experience in taking actions to play a substantial role in helping mentor and develop those supervisors who have not.
  4. That all of the above done in cooperation with one or more working groups consisting of people who have extensive experience in these processes at the operating level including human resources advisors and Agency counsel who are responsible for advising supervisors and managers.  These people also see a problem addressed from beginning through resolution.

Recommendation #2

To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers and to more effectively ensure that agencies have a well-qualified cadre of supervisors capable of effectively addressing poor performance, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should determine if promising practices at some agencies should be more widely used government-wide. Such practices include (1) extending the supervisory probationary period beyond 1-year to include at least one full employee appraisal cycle; (2) providing detail opportunities or rotational assignments to supervisory candidates prior to promotion, where the candidate can develop and demonstrate supervisory competencies; and (3) using a dual career ladder structure as a way to advance employees who may have particular technical skills and/or education but who are not interested in or inclined to pursue a management or supervisory track. (My emphasis)

Some further suggestions.  OPM should:

  1. Ask the Hill to put its money where its mouth is and fund new supervisor training programs focusing on addressing employee problems, giving attendees proven tools to guide their approach. (You’ve seen many of these tools right here on Fedsmith.com)
  2. Encourage Agencies to train not only managers but revitalize the employee relations function through training and career development efforts.  Also critical is Federal sector specific training for Agency lawyers upon assignment to units engaged in employment matters.
  3. Recognize, in its recommendations, that Federal supervisors invariably do mission work 60 or even 70% or more of the time.  I’m always chagrinned by those who want to have supervisor to employee ratios of 20 or 25 to one.  That is not even remotely possible in anyone’s real world.

Recommendation #3

To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers and to help supervisors make effective use of the probationary period for new employees the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should (1) educate agencies on the benefits of using automated notifications to notify supervisors that an individual’s probationary period is ending and that the supervisor needs to make an affirmative decision or otherwise take appropriate action, and encourage its use to the extent it is appropriate and cost-effective for the agency; and (2) determine whether there are occupations in which–because of the nature of work and complexity–the probationary period should extend beyond 1-year to provide supervisors with sufficient time to assess an individual’s performance. If determined to be warranted, initiate the regulatory process to extend existing probationary periods and, where necessary, develop a legislative proposal for congressional action to ensure that formal procedures for taking action against an employee for poor performance (and a right to appeal such an action) are not afforded until after the completion of any extended probationary period.

In addition OPM and CHCOs should:

  1. Help Agencies go beyond automating a notice that a rating is due to:
    1. Encourage creation of support systems for supervision and management that offer desktop help to walk them through at least the commonly shared problems that most supervisors will face, such as what options are available if Mary is absent and doesn’t call in or Harry calls a coworker a not so nice name.
    2. While OPM’s current guide on performance issues is a good introduction, it should strongly urge Agencies to create or adopt a system integrating Agency policies, directives, procedures, forms, etc. in a user friendly package that embraces the common performance problem solutions and best practices.
  2. By the way, I’m not suggesting tracking systems above in 1. a & b.  What is needed is a fully integrated expert system in which supervisors interact with advisors and in which communication and information at various levels gets to those with a need for it In real time.

Recommendation #4

To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers, and to help ensure OPM’s tools and guidance for dealing with poor performers are cost-effectively meeting agencies’ and supervisors’ needs, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should use Strategic Human Capital Management survey results (once available), Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, Performance Appraisal Assessment Tool responses, and other existing information, as relevant, to inform decisions on content and distribution methods. The importance of effective performance management and addressing poor performance may need to be reinforced with agency supervisors so that they more routinely seek out tools and guidance. (My emphasis)

The truth is that the tools mentioned above are most often so general as to be useless and guidance varies greatly not only between Agencies but within Agencies by organization, availability of advisors and lack of communication.

What’s needed are practical, useable, real tools that:

  1. Focus on problem resolution at the job level;
  2. Address, in detail, the setting of both conduct and performance expectations;
  3. Encourage measured responses to each problem;
  4. Encourage fairness and equity;
  5. Engage employees as part of the solution;
  6. Are realistic about the timing and taking of actions;
  7. Build a practical operating level appreciation of issues such as due process and anti-discrimination;
  8. Incorporate statutory and regulatory obligations, third party case law, basic disciplinary and performance principles, and specific Agency policies and procedures;
  9. Are vetted by HR advisors who must work with a supervisor or manager;
  10. Are vetted by Counsel to ensure legal sufficiency and defensible actions.

I was glad to see GAO address the issues in this report.  There is much more work to be done in the area of employee accountability.  This past year, I have conducted a number of training sessions bringing practical tools to Federal managers (almost 1000 attendees total) to help them deal with the kinds of problems addressed in the above suggestions and many more that supervisors must deal with day to day.

I and a number of others have also been heavily engaged in the development of an “expert” system to be available on a supervisor’s work station that will hopefully address many of the problems supervisors and managers face day to day.  Many who have seen the “paper” tools discussed in my FedSmith articles or in classrooms have expressed their immediate usefulness at the job site.  If you’re interested in hearing more, email me (Tap the contact link below).

As always, anything approaching an opinion in the above is solely my responsibility.

I know I’ve been “quiet” for a while.  There have been a number of reasons for this but for those who like to read my scribblings, I hope to get back on a regular schedule.  For those who don’t like what I write, consider the articles a rant opportunity for the comments section, although I doubt you need to be told that.

© 2016 Bob Gilson. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Bob Gilson.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.

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