Dealing With the Unacceptable Employee (Part Two)

How do you deal with “Cants” in the federal government? These are people who are not necessarily devious, lazy or malevolent but they are incompetent and cannot do all of what they are being paid to do–but may still cost $100,000 a year or more in salary and overhead. Here are tips for agencies on where to begin.

This essay is a sequel to one posted to FedSmith last week titled When Acceptable People Perform Unacceptably. It is a second piece of the puzzle posed by employees who cannot do what agencies are paying them to do.

The “Cants” (as I refer to incompetent employees) are not devious, lazy, or malevolent. They are incompetent – not psychologically or mentally. They just cannot do all of what they’re being paid to do. Cants work in government and restaurants, for utilities and manufacturers, in labor unions and repair shops. We often like them personally. It’s their performance that drives us crazy. Over time, they may engender thoughts that begin with, “If she’s paid as a GS-12 and her performance is considered acceptable, why am I …?”

Past and present

Most Cants have experienced years of neglect and inflated performance ratings. They should not be blamed for either. Indicting their past supervisors and managers is both easy and appropriate. While tracing the causes of their situation may be revealing, the incompetent employee continues to come to work every day – and nothing’s being done about it.

These days, an incompetent may represent an annual cost (salary, overhead, etc) of $100,000 or more.  If the first level supervisor’s assessment is correct (coworkers have usually reached the same conclusion) the unacceptable performer costs your agency more than he adds in benefits. That’s bad business by any reckoning. When his supervisor is asked to imagine a competent employee in the same job, this cost-benefit analysis becomes very clear. The next question is: Where should agencies begin?

OPM, PIPs, and masochism

Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regulations call for giving incompetent employees

“…a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance, commensurate with the duties and responsibilities of the employee’s position. As part of the employee’s opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance, the agency shall offer assistance to the employee in improving unacceptable performance.”

In common Federal parlance, this is a PIP (or Performance Improvement Plan) – usually 60-90 days of assistance and documentation.

PIPs are a pain. They’re hard to compose – mostly because a critical element may not lend itself to metrics. Consider composing a PIP for an incompetent supervisor in the critical element “Leadership”. How does one measure leadership or prove it to be unacceptable? (See Goals, Objectives and the Everyday Employee)

Beyond its technical challenges, a PIP puts a front-line supervisor in the awkward position. She must be both an ally (helping the employee succeed) and an oppressor (documenting every failure for potential use as evidence against the employee). When asked, supervisors who have administered a PIP commonly tell me that it a half-time job all to itself.

An unacceptable worker who can handle the demands of the position (but doesn’t) is a “Wont”. Investing in a PIP for a Wont is a waste of time and credibility. If the PIP is given to an actual Cant, the result is most commonly failure. After all, this problem has been years in the making. It’s unlikely to be resolved in a few months.

Now OPM’s regulations read

” …an agency may propose a reduction-in-grade or removal action if the employee’s performance during or following the opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance is unacceptable in 1 or more of the critical elements for which the employee was afforded an opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance.”

Neither of these choices; however, feels right.

The downside of demotion

Reduction-in-grade or demotion is distasteful – for a number of few reasons. Cants are usually decent human beings who have done nothing wrong – in the sense that they haven’t chosen their circumstances. (He imagined he was going to be good supervisor. She couldn’t have foreseen the reorganization that left her in a job for which she’s ill-suited.) Forcing such folks into a lower status/paying job may poison their attitude. Every day they come to work, they remember where they were and where they are now.

Demotions also leave an unfortunate visible reminder to the rest of the workforce. Here’s a good person who has been diminished in both pay and stature by the very agency that tolerated his poor performance… for years. Could they do that to me?

Recognize also that reductions-in-grade may be appealed to the MSPB (Merit Systems Protection Board). A demotion notice must be accompanied by MSPB regulations and an appeal form. If you think demoting is humane, you’ll think again if you wind up in litigation. Don’t expect the demoted employee to say, “Thanks, I needed that!”

The remorse of removal

That leaves removal – also known as “economic capital punishment”. The downside to this option is similar. Removal is like eviction or expulsion, in that we have no idea how the employee will survive in the aftermath. Be wary of those who speak objectively and dispassionately of removing a tenured employee whose value has diminished over the course of years. It’s not easy. Most supervisors feel as if they are casting out a member of the family – especially as the Cants are so often pleasant people whose integrity is not in question.

As with demotions, removal actions are likely to precipitate appeals. Whether it’s the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), MSPB, or a labor arbitrator – expect your evidence to go before a judge. Such hearings normally absorb weeks of preparation time, anxiety, and related costs.

The risk of reassignment

Many agency directives and union agreements call for consideration of reassignment if a PIP is failed. If there is another job at the same grade level (or within the same pay band) that might better utilize the employee’s talents, why not seize the opportunity? It could prove a “win-win”.

Experience, however, dictates that everyone involved should be clear regarding why the reassignment is being made. What if the lateral move doesn’t resolve the problem? Without clear intentions and follow-up with the receiving supervisor, the Cant may simply have been shelved in a different closet. It’s not uncommon for such employees to have a long history of details and reassignments – all to no avail.

While these technical options are where most HR specialists turn, an important ingredient is missing. There’s an honest conversation between supervisor and employee that needs to happen… and it won’t be easy.

Designing a tough conversation

In preparing to tell a nice person that his job may be threatened, the supervisor may want to contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for assistance. This “self-referral” would be for the benefit of the supervisor alone. After all, any supervisor who must confront a Cant is probably experiencing “job stress” – the most common employee assistance referral category. The coaching your EAP can offer may prove invaluable. Also, take a look at the book Difficult Conversations. It’s a good one.

I also suggest finding a competent mediator (one who facilitates effective conversations, without a need to influence the outcome or take sides) to help the supervisor and employee make it through this charged discussion. Mediators allow employee and supervisor to fully participate in the conversation – without the added responsibility of managing it. (See War and Peace: Should You Discipline or Mediate?)

I am a certified mediator myself. I can help managers acknowledge a history of neglect and the employee admit to his/her work deficiencies. I can assist folks in articulating regrets and apologies. That can make a big difference. I also use my training and experience to ensure that strong emotions (fear, anger, shame, etc.) are acknowledged, yet don’t derail the content of the discussion.

Where the union and administrative leave might help

A conscientious and competent union representative may also help in triangulating these challenging conversations. Many union reps who read articles like this want to indict management and turn attention away from any discussion regarding the Cant and her performance.

I’ve met many excellent union reps; however, who are both skilled warriors and also clear-eyed thinkers. The latter skill is what’s usually needed in cases of unacceptable performance. Having someone “in her corner” as she assesses career-changing options may prove helpful. Similarly, a knowledgeable and balanced HR specialist can be of equal, if not greater, help.

You may want to consider an even more unorthodox (non-regulatory) approach. It was offered to me by an HR director in the private sector. After meeting with the employee and apprising him of his (very difficult) situation, give the Cant a few days off work with pay (Administrative Leave) to consider his/her best options. After all, his head is spinning and his services won’t be appreciably missed. Why not allow him time to extract his heart from his mouth and consider what’s ahead. It’s a positive gesture with little risk.

All of this is leading to a hoped-for outcome – that the Cant will leave for a job that proves a better fit or propose how she will achieve competence. In either case, management may have forced an unpleasant issue, yet not taken responsibility for its outcome. In each case, the employee is encouraged to take responsibility for her own future.

Other options

Through all of the above, be open to taking an unexpected turn. There’s always the possibility that the performance deficiencies are caused by a disability. The breadth of what constitutes a disability continues to evolve. (Until recently, post-traumatic stress disorder was known to very few HR folks. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t affecting employees job performance.) Assume nothing, but be willing to broach the subject.

If the Cant is disabled, the possibility of retirement may prove an amicable alternative to a PIP. Enquire along these lines and be clear that revealing a disabling condition (even one that might prove embarrassing) may be preferable to the alternative.

To further complicate matters, readers should know that Federal employees who are removed for reasons of unacceptable performance may be eligible for “discontinued service retirement”. This is actually a benefit for longer-term employees. It does not apply in conduct or disciplinary removals. If this option is relevant, both the supervisor and employee may want to consult with a Federal retirement expert to see how their actions might be affected.

Similarly, management may want to consider out-placement services available to employees who are separated through no fault of their own. While normally used in reductions-in-force, such services can help the Cant plan a productive future. Why not consider it as a “settlement” option?

FedSmith readers may know of other approaches that haven’t crossed my mind in composing this article. Feel free to post them on the comments page.

We have met the Cants, and “them” is “us”

In the end, all of us are Cants – be it at legal analysis, electronics repair, nursing, botany, or administration. We earn a living at what we do well and then hire out work that’s beyond our abilities. It’s what makes the economy go ‘round.

The situation changes when someone is occupying a job for which they’re not well-suited. Some chose to test the Peter Principle by advancing themselves in the hierarchy. For others, time and technology changes have caught up with them. And then there are the employees who simply entered the wrong career path at the start and were never weeded out.

The causes are many and the solutions challenging. For the Federal government (with incompetent politicos often running the show) it’s time to get started. Fairness and public service demand 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