Performance Improvement (Part Two)

Solving a performance problem in the complex world of the federal human resources environment takes time, energy, patience and considerable work. This part of the article explains how to define the problem and tools to address the problem.

In Part One of this article (See “Performance Improvement: Addressing the Real Problems Without Getting Bogged Down in the Most User-Unfriendly Program Around“), we looked at the critical legwork a manager must do before heading down a performance problem-solving road. In Part Two, we’ll look at specifically defining the problem and developing some tools to address it. If there are multiple problems we may need more tools.

Identifying the Problem

Let’s get right to the bottom line. Something this person is doing or not doing has gotten your attention and for the wrong reasons. The next step takes careful attention and documentation. The following questions will help you get there:

  1. Exactly (and this is very important),  what are they doing or not doing that is a problem? This usually relates to meeting deadlines; gathering, analyzing and reporting information according to an Agency-specific process; executing a procedure resulting in a specific outcome or the like. Frequently, problems involve planning work, working with others, lack of focus, poor writing or verbal skills. A common problem in some organizations involves differences between an individual’s priorities and those of their supervisor or manager.
  2. Include the specific consequences of each thing the person is doing or not doing on the work, the organization, coworkers, customers, costs, etc.
  3. What, again exactly, is needed to be done to do each thing the right way.

Spend time writing and editing to get it right. Make it so clear that your teenage child could read it and understand the problem. If you cannot articulate with specificity what’s going, you can’t hope to solve the problem. Hopefully, you’ve now identified the problem and what behavior will correct it.

Next Chores

Before we get any further, a few more questions:

  • Does the person know how to do the things you want?
  • How do you know that they know?
  • Was there specific training?
  • Is there some document that made the duties clear?

If you don’t have an answer to one or more of the above, don’t even think about saying things like “it’s common sense”, “everyone knows”, “if you’re around for more than a day, it’s obvious”, or some similar lame excuse. Wanna solve the problem? It’s time to go to work. More questions:

  • How long has this been going on?
  • Who’s been getting the persons job done while they’re not?

One Last Preliminary Chore

Before we assume we’re dealing with a straightforward issue, ask yourself, is anything else involved? Matters such as those listed below require specifically developed and targeted approaches. All of them can be addressed but must be addressed at the same time as the performance problems or they’ll complicate the heck out of the solution.

  • Leave Issues
  • Medical Issues
  • Coworker Issues
  • Customer Issues
  • Organizational Issues
  • Family Issues
  • Substance Abuse Issues

OK, so let’s say the above complications aren’t present, now what?

Develop and Provide the Person a Problem Identification Memo

A problem identification memo includes the information you’ve developed laying out the specific problems you’ve identified and the real effects of the behavior on mission, work accomplishment, the work of others and the person’s successful completion of their job requirements. Couch the memo in the tone that you have observed, if true, or have identified the issues and are concerned about them. The memo should offer the employee the opportunity to respond, give you reasons for the behavior from the employee’s perspective and make clear that you will consider the employee’s response in your decision on what action, if any, is appropriate. I’m of the belief that management may direct a response by the employee in a certain form by a certain deadline if it so chooses. Such a course is not for the faint hearted, the insecure or those lacking well qualified and experienced advisors.

Dealing with the Memo

If no response, proceed to the next step. If the employee respondsand raises legitimate issues, deal with them. If you get whining or unsupported excuses, move to the next step.

Issue a Tailored Guidance and Direction Memo

While prior articles have addressed guidance and direction memos (Ralph, please link to best tool in the box article), let’s look at how to construct this one.

  • Address the employees response or state that it was provided on a specific date, had a due date for a response but no response was received.
  • Specify the exact problem(s) again.
  • Detail exactly the behavior you want regarding each and every problem identified.
  • Establish timelines for accomplishment of the behavior.
  • Establish a requirement that the employee must advise you upon successful completion of each timeline or in advance of a deadline, if they do not expect to meet it. This is important, so make sure it’s covered in the memo specifically regarding each requirement.

NOTE: As an example, if the person has a writing deadline to produce a product on a regular basis and should start drafting the report a week before it’s due, require a preliminary draft 7 days, 4 days and 2 days out from the deadline. When you get these drafts, review them and provide the employee with suggestions on improvement. Date, time, and retain these documents.

  • Make clear that your requirements are the employee’s absolute first priority and that the requirements come before any other job duty.
  • Advise the employee that any other issue that would require the person’s time and attention, whether involving a coworker, a customer or someone else may not be addressed by the person without specific notice to you and your advance permission.
  • Advise the employee that the memo is being issued to them to improve their ability to do the job and that it is critical to their job success that they follow its requirements.
  • Advise the employee that you are available to answer questions regarding the memo but that the memo is effective upon their receipt of it.

Follow Up

What do you do if the employee gets better? Rejoice, praise the person regularly and stay on top of the situation for a sufficient enough period to gain a confidence that the behavior change is permanent.

What do you do if there’s no improvement, passive/aggressive behavior, or further decline? Remember that you have given the individual a specific, written direction (It’s an order, let’s not quibble). Failure to follow a clear direction to perform a proper work-related requirement from a duly authorized official is an actionable offense. You are now in the disciplinary arena and the next steps e.g. the warning to reprimand to suspension to removal process is in effect. Get competent advice and assistance and move forward.

What About PIPs?

The use of a Performance Improvement Period(PIP) is a function of the performance process under Federal personnel regulations in Chapters 430 and 432. Agency management has authority to use either these procedures or the disciplinary under Chapter 752 to address performance problems. This article (Parts 1 and 2) advocates using the disciplinary process. It’s my belief that the procedures outlined in this article are easier to use and defend. The Chapter 430/432 procedures, on the other hand are cumbersome; excessively time consuming to implement and document; and much riskier to defend before a third party such as the Merit Systems Protection Board. My experience is that the 430/432 process is harder for employees and more importantly, supervisors, to understand. I have, under certain circumstances, advocated using a PIP in concert with the procedures outlined in this article. But the existence of those circumstances is rare.

What this article advocates is controversial in some Agencies. The good news is that if you don’t like what I’m selling, you don’t have to use it. I think direct and clear is always better than complex and confusing. If you don’t agree, submit a comment.

The above represents my views and opinions and not necessarily those of FedSmith, my employer or others with whom I’m in some way involved.

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.