Ten Critical Mistakes Made by Supervisors Dealing with Federal Employees in Trouble at Work

Most Federal employees who get disciplined, deserve it (read the decisions). Most of the supervisory mistakes result from poor training or higher level leadership issues. This article takes a look at supervisors and the difficulties they often face coping with an employee in trouble.

In an earlier article, Ten Critical Mistakes Made by Federal Employees in Trouble at Work , we took a look at employees with problems and the mistakes they sometimes make that aggravate their troubles. As a management representative and employee relations advisor, I frequently saw supervisors start out on the wrong foot dealing with the employee, the process, their advisors and their superiors. This article turns the coin to look at supervisors and the difficulties they often face coping with an employee in trouble.

In the comments to the previous article, some seemed to think I was limiting my discussion to non-supervisory staffers. A smaller percentage of supervisors get into difficulties with their bosses usually because the pyramid narrows as it’s climbed and hopefully a little more “good” discrimination (as opposed to the illegal kind) goes into their selection.

Also, as mentioned in the prior article, most of the supervisors I advised were apprehensive about what the short term future held while they dealt with a person who was having work problems. Most of the mistakes discussed below are common at the early stages of problem solving. Fortunately, most get resolved before real damage results.

So those who only read this far in any article can get their two cents in, most Federal employees who get disciplined, deserve it (read the decisions). Most of the supervisory mistakes I’ve seen result from poor training or higher level leadership issues. There are some bad apples in supervision and management but my personal experience is that the money wasn’t worth the hassle and most of those who put up with the hassle did so from other worthy motives.

Critical Mistake #1 – Failing to Set Clear Expectations or to Regularly Reinforce Them

Smart Move #1 – Make a list of performance and behavioral expectations for your staff overall and specifically for individuals as their jobs require. The list should include such things as the way they should deal with you, customers, others in and out of the organization and each other on work related matters. High on this list will be attendance issues as these are the #1 reason for discipline in the Federal workforce. Update your list regularly as new issues emerge or the work environment changes. Scrupulously require your staff to attend mandatory training (Such matters as financial responsibility, ethics, sexual harassment, etc.). Personally meet with the entire staff to go over the staff list at least semiannually. Meet with individuals semiannually to go over the unique expectations applicable to them. Keep a record of each meeting, who attended, and if someone missed the overall staff issues, schedule a makeup meeting just for them.

Critical Mistake #2 – Letting Problems You’re Aware of Fester before Addressing Them

Smart Move #2 – Do not assume people are self-correcting. I would like a small sum for each meeting I have had with a supervisor that opened with, “I’m fed up with Harry”. (Here I go picking on Harry again.) Dropping something on the floor is rarely a cause for supervisory concern while throwing things at doors walls and windows always is. The judgment it takes to distinguish what is a problem and what is not is exactly what should be screened for in supervisor selection. In addition, mentoring new supervisors to fit in to an organization should address such issues. No supervisory mentoring program with clear objectives? Shame on you, senior management!

Critical Mistake #3 – Failure to Communicate With People with Problems

Smart Move #3 – Fight the urge to avoid those staff members that are difficult to deal with, annoying, marginally productive or who possess similarly unpleasant attributes. I believe supervisory-employee alienation is a prime factor in a deteriorating relationship that reduces greatly a supervisor’s willingness to address issues. Know what each staff member is working on. Keep up with their progress. Listen to their concerns. It is every Federal employee’s responsibility to get to work, do the job as well as they are able and to follow the organizations written and unwritten rules.

Critical Mistake #4 – Failure to Recognize the Importance of Due Process

Smart Move #4 – Get training on what happens when an employee problem must be formally addressed. Supervisors are generally responsible to make sure that there exists:

  • Proof (including objective evidence) that a rule exists.
  • Proof (including objective evidence) that the employee knew or should have known the rule.
  • Proof (including objective evidence) that the employee violated the rule.
  • Proof (including objective evidence) that a reasonably thorough inquiry took place to ascertain the facts in the matter.
  •  Proof (including objective evidence) that the employee involved was permitted to submit evidence and tell his side of the story.
  • An initial written decision that the employee may appeal to a higher level.

Critical Mistake #5 – Taking the Matter Personally

Smart Move #5 – If there is any practice a Federal supervisor should undertake it is the cultivation of an attitude of objectivity in dealing with problematic employee behavior. I’m not talking about political correctness here. Once an employee problem is identified, it is theirs to solve. We hire no children into Federal service. Paternalism, favoritism and condescension are not only vile to observe but fly directly into the face of the concept of individual dignity and self worth that this country is suppose to exemplify.

A supervisor owes an employee the opportunity:

  • To hear what management believes is unacceptable behavior directly;
  • To get guidance on the way the Agency wants the individual to behave;
  • To be offered (in most cases) an opportunity to demonstrate acceptable behavior
  • To decide for him or herself how to proceed and to face the consequences of that decision.

Over and over again, I have seen supervisors personalize a matter and become upset, angry, disappointed, etc. with a person. While it’s human to feel that way sometimes, it’s important to remember that dignity requires that we honor a person’s choices. We help where appropriate to do so but to take responsibility for a subordinate’s misconduct is just plain wrong.

NOTE: If there is a number one rule for dealing with employee problems it should address the expression of frustration on the part of supervisors faced with an issue. The rule should be that if you are FEELING something, don’t evidence that feeling in casual, unconsidered, impromptu, or unplanned writing, email or conversations. First, the Privacy Act limits our ability to discuss matters personal to an issue outside those with a need to know. Second, these expressed feelings invariably surface as evidence of your bias (for whatever reason) against the person. Much, if not all of your emails and writings may be disclosed to the person or their lawyer in the course of an action now or in the future. So, watch your mouth, pen AND keyboard when working the process of addressing employee problems.

Critical Mistake #6 – Moving Too Quickly to Formal Action

Smart Move # 6 – Work a problem informally whenever possible. The above discussion of due process strongly suggests we communicate rules, instructions and expectations to employees. It often takes time and dedication to help a person to work through problems. If we see in the person an apparently sincere desire to improve then use informal, non-disciplinary approaches whenever possible.

Critical Mistake #7 – Playing “GOTCHA” With Troublesome or Difficult People

Smart Move #7 –Treat everyone equitably and fairly. Let the appropriate processes work. Some supervisors see a serious employee mistake as an opportunity to rid themselves of a “problem employee” rather than the opportunity to help an individual work out their “employment problems”. Get over it. If you’re too eager to drop the blade, you’ll be the one making the serious mistake.

Critical Mistake #8 – Waiting Too Long to Get Professional Help

Smart Move #8 – Make sure you know your servicing employee relations specialist or human resources advisor. If you see a problem developing, do not hesitate to discuss it with that person. These specialists see many problems and their job is to help you get through them. They also know specific employment rules and rights that you don’t as well as options you probably don’t know exist. Pick up the phone and call or go visit them. Another reason to include a professional is objectivity. A friend and mentor in the employee relations business, now deceased, told the story of his childhood trips from the family farm in East Carolina to town on Saturdays. He said his “daddy” would give him a nickel to buy 5 penny candies. He said he ate three that day and one the next day. But since it was a long time from Monday to Saturday for a little boy, he saved one. On Tuesday, he took it out of his pocket, unwrapped it and licked it. But it was still a long, long wait to Saturday. By Thursday, he was overwhelmed. But upon taking it out of his pocket, he discovered it was all covered by lint and fuzz. The storyteller, one James P. Early, had much experience with Federal employee problems long before MSPB or even EEOC existed.

He taught all of us that worked for him that cases were like the candy. At first they were straight and clean but as they aged, they got all covered with lint and fuzz. He also believed that managers should not only be apprised of the lint and fuzz, but advised of the effect such matter might have on how to proceed and likely outcomes. Get the help you need.

Critical Mistake #9 – Unwillingness to See a Problem Through to a Resolution

Smart Move #9 – Generally discipline is required to be progressive. Employee problem solving is a process. When you’re in the middle of it, it is often hard to recognize that Federal employees have substantial rights for substantial reasons. Supervisors facing problems will either take a longer view or repeat the initial steps in the process over and over again if they drop the ball or procrastinate when it’s important to be persistent.

Critical Mistake #10 – Worrying Too Much About Over-Touted Disincentives to Taking Action

Smart Move #10 – Do the right thing. Don’t hesitate to proceed with dealing with misconduct if what you’re worried about includes:

  • What if they file a discrimination claim?
  • What do I do if they get hostile and aggressive?
  • Don’t I have to treat each employee exactly the same?
  • What if they go to the union?

All of these may be addressed by taking proper action in line with agency rules and with careful consideration of the advice of professionals. If the problem needs addressing, go to work on it and, Oh Yeah, make sure your boss is on the program. Keeping higher level management aware of what’s going on is high on your To Do list.

There may be other critical mistakes a manager could make. I’m sure there are. So please send in your “critical mistake” to fill in the blanks.

Good Advisors will run supervisors through a checklist of questions before providing advice. An earlier article, Federal Manager’s Disciplinary and Adverse Action Working Papers included a discipline worksheet.  You may find these helpful in getting the action right from the beginning.

 The opinions contained above are, as always, mine and mine alone.  Comments are welcome, especially from those who disagree.


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.