Unmasking the Marginal Federal Employee

Do we need a marginal rating for federal employees? In a practical sense, marginal ratings result in nothing but work for the supervisor.

Assume for a moment that you are my boss. After years of disappointment and frustration (and after months of discussions with your boss and HR folks) you finally work up the nerve to confront me and tell me that my performance is not satisfactory and that you can no longer rate me Fully Successful. So, if I’m not satisfactory, what am I?

In too many Federal performance appraisal systems, the answer is Marginal, Minimally Successful, or some similarly vague term. Marginal is neither fish nor fowl. It is not passing or failing. It is, in essence, a “D”.

The ambiguity of failure

I asked a seminar participant this question: “Did you ever get a “D” in school?” His affirmative response precipitated the next query, “When you took that grade home to your parents, did you feel it was passing or failing?” The answer — “Passing”.

The next question brought him into the present, “If one of your kids came home with a “D” on his/her report card, would you say it was passing or failing?” Sheepishly he confessed that a “D” would be failing.

So what is Marginal and why do we continue to feature it in Federal appraisal systems. Is it just because it looks symmetrical to have two grades above “C” (Fully Successful) and two below, making the theoretical rating curve more bell-shaped?

How bad does it have to get?

Federal service isn’t school. The sad fact is, most Federal workers who receive Marginal ratings are doing so poorly they should be considered Unacceptable or “F”.

If our worst performers were graded as failing, their jobs would be on the line absent significant documented improvements. A Marginal rating may ensure the individual doesn’t receive future pay increases, but they’ll still be showing up everyday… and they’ll still be clueless.

As things stand now, a Marginal rating offers no conclusion. In other words, an civil servant could be rated “D” year after year… and stay at the same desk or workbench in perpetuity, or until s/he is re-rated as Unacceptable. In a practical management sense, Marginal ratings result in nothing but work for the supervisor.

“Cant’s”, “Wont’s”, and “PIPs”

Some agencies have gone so far as to require a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) if a Marginal rating is determined appropriate. This requires 60-90 days of intense documentation regarding the employee’s failures.

Lest if be mistaken for anything else, a PIP is a heroic effort on the part of management. Most supervisors who have ventured into a PIP testify that the documentation and counseling requirements often occupy half of their working hours for the 2-3 months the improvement period is in effect.

The problem is, if the worker in question doesn’t improve her performance, the conclusion that she is Marginal will result in no particular action, as noted above. As noted above, Marginal represents a “D”, not an “F”.

If the employee (and again, it should be noted that many of the government’s most incompetent employees are in management) continues to cause embarrassment, dissatisfaction among co-workers, and additional burdens for his/her boss, then another PIP must follow to precipitate action. Thus, a Marginal rating is a calculated gamble on the part of management that the employee in question is capable of improvement — a “won’t” rather than a “can’t”.

If there were no Marginal category, incompetents (many of whom were put into jobs for which they were never suited) would be rated Unacceptable and given an opportunity to improve. Their immature (lazy, indifferent, and uncooperative) brethren would receive disciplinary actions for delays, failure to follow instructions, carelessness, etc.

Discipline better serves the purpose for correcting the “won’ts” — with less work. If someone needs to understand the gravity of the performance problems that result from his/her attitude, a disciplinary letter (with the threat of escalation is subsequent behavior occurs) is quicker, easier, and requires less documentation.

Solution at hand

The irony here, is that agencies can eliminate Marginal rating levels from their performance appraisal systems whenever they’re ready. The requirement to have a five-level appraisal system was dropped by OPM over a decade ago. At that time, many Federal agencies went to “Pass/Fail” evaluation schemes — most often to correct years of inflated ratings. Now, with the advent of widespread pay-for-performance, those same agencies are returning to “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, and “F” plans.

Why not eliminate the “D”, and along with it, any confusion as to what’s passing and what’s failing? Four-level appraisal systems should become the norm in government. After all, it’s not as if one has to work all that hard to be rated Fully Successful (“C”) these days. If a Federal worker is unable to meet the most basic requirements of their job (often through no fault of their own — but that’s a subject for a future article) then the distasteful business attendant to an Unacceptable appraisal determination should begin.

As noted above, Federal managers commonly lack the will to confront our worst performers, including those in leadership positions. If and where such courage is mustered, the process of removing the “dead wood” should be fair and efficient. When agencies axe the distracting category of “almost dead” (Marginal) from their appraisal we will be one step further on the way.

Amid a sea of broad-brush and harebrain schemes to rehabilitate Federal personnel policies, this is a simple and pragmatic reform. Let’s get to work on it.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.