When Acceptable People Perform Unacceptably

There are some people working in government who are good people and you may like them–they just don’t do the work they are being paid to do. Management often avoids dealing with them. So, how should you deal with these nice people who are not doing their jobs?

From baseball to bureaucracy

The expression, “Nice guys finish last” is attributed to Leo “The Lip” Durocher – a curmudgeonly baseball player and manager who died in 1991. He managed several teams over many decades for a total of 2008 wins and 1709 losses. Durocher played with Babe Ruth and managed 20 players who later went on to manage major league teams themselves. He eventually parlayed the alleged quip into a book by the same title.

While baseball luminaries like Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson easily disprove Leo’s maxim, it has become a familiar aphorism for Americans of all stripes. It can be read into many contexts – challenging us each time it’s spoken. Most of us want to believe that likeable, friendly, helpful people should be winners in life. Sadly, this may not be the case.

It’s my contention that most of the government’s worst performers (male and female) could be classified as “nice guys”. I usually refer to this group as the Cant’s, and for the remainder of this article, I’ll leave out the apostrophe.

Distinguishing Cants from Wont’s

A Cant is in the wrong job. No doubt, there is a job that might suit his talents and gifts… but the one he currently occupies isn’t it. Perhaps he is proving the Peter Principle. (“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”) Consider those who complain about their superiors – with and without cause. Now imagine those folks in management jobs.

Perhaps the reason lies elsewhere. Incompetent employees may be scientists, supervisors, firefighters, or contract specialists. They exist in every known job category. To work with a Cant often feels unbearable. You are not only doing your own job, but much of hers as well. …and the worst part of it is, you don’t hate them, so much as the management that avoids dealing with them.

Unlike co-workers who pose problems related to their attitude or behavior (the “Won’ts”), Cants are folks we actually like. They are embedded in Federal agencies… in large part because they’re such decent folks. Nobody seems able to hurt them with the truth. We all agree that people who do bad things should be punished…but what about those who’ve done nothing in particular?

Commonly, Cants have years of experience. Their continued presence isn’t their fault. It’s management’s. After all, who determined these folks qualified for their jobs? Who selected them? Who passed them through their probationary period? Who reassigned and/or promoted them? And finally, who has consistently rated them as “Fully Successful”… or better? The documentation of success in their records contains one management signature after another.

Sinners and those who cast stones

Moreover, your human resources and upper management may be burdened with more than their fair share of Cants. (Didn’t Dr. Peter assert that people must rise to their level of incompetence?) As a former human resources specialist, I must admit that we harbored our share of Cants – perhaps more than our share. I’ve heard leaders of all stripes say, “Let’s wait and see. She’s just a year of two from retirement” (…yeah, “optional retirement”!) or “He might file an EEO complaint. What can I do?” (…how about your job!).

Is it the worker’s fault that they’ve been protected by both coworkers and managers? The former are so focused on teamwork and mission they insist on stepping in and doing work for which the Cants should be held responsible. The latter are preoccupied with meetings/paperwork and often untrained in this area of leadership. They cannot imagine turning 2-3 months of their attention to documenting a nice person’s failings.

Some sanctimonious Feds have the gall to suggest that Cants do the honorable thing and resign. Not me. After all, there but for the grace of a higher power may go you or me. Our job could change or disappear virtually overnight. DHS is contracting out their human resources work to Lockheed. What will become of those hundreds of folks? What happens down the road if they land in the wrong place? …and whose fault is it?

Confronting good people

Due to technology changes, reorganizations, promotions, disuse of the probation program, and other circumstances not of their own making, the Cants are a structural problem in government. Commonly, they are agreeable, helpful, inoffensive, and decent human beings. The only crime they’ve committed is that of being clueless at work.

From an outsider’s vantage point, the Cants in our agencies may be better human beings than we are. When it comes time to confront them and initiate the required performance improvement plan (PIP), supervisors commonly experience a failure of nerve. That’s both understandable and unacceptable.

Once this fear of confronting a Cant is overcome, the result is usually a foregone conclusion. An incompetent Fed won’t be able to prove himself able in a 60-90 day PIP, absent a miracle. After all, we’ve worked with them for years… to no avail.

Many think that the fear of losing their jobs will prove the needed “wake-up call” leading to competence. You’re fooling yourself. Think of a teen who is flunking Geometry. If she can pass when threatened (with being “left back”) she probably wasn’t a Cant to begin with. Wonts are the employees who lack motivation and/or commitment. Discipline them – just as your parents may have disciplined you when it was your indifference that was leading to failure. We don’t need to be helping those who won’t crack open the book.

When bad things happen to good people

The Federal government is known more for its tolerance of incompetents than for its best and brightest. In most agencies, the latter population vastly outnumber the former. That was my experience in both the Social Security Administration and the Department of the Navy. Nevertheless, the politicians, press, and public focus on our worst 5 percent… because Federal managers don’t.

Cants are the ones who are in over their heads. Management must help them to pass their PIP – just as a teacher would help a struggling 10th grader… or a coach help a slumping batter. The months that a performance improvement plan is in effect are excruciating for both the supervisor and employee. Assuming the roles of victim and perpetrator, both dread the inevitable outcome.

When applied only to the appropriate population of employees, the sad fact is that the vast majority of PIPs result in failure. The law is very specific in such cases. According to 5 CFR 432.105 an employee who fails must be reassigned, demoted or removed.

Two of those three options may not work for your agency. There are, however, other ways to deal with the Cants. That will be the subject of a second article. Look for it in the next couple of weeks.

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.