Let The Supervisor Sign

Why do so many agencies make upper management responsible for the contents and accuracy of letters of reprimand? the author says that this policy undermines a supervisors’ authority to lead.

I recently taught a seminar titled Dealing With Performance and Conduct Issues for Federal a field activity that need not be named. Their parent agency’s policy is to have “Letters of Reprimand” signed by third (and sometimes fourth) level managers. The need for such a high level of accountability is questionable since reprimands are commonly expunged from the employee’s personnel records 1-3 years after being signed. (See Our Disciplinary System Needs Corrective Action)

For more than a decade, I have wondered why so many agencies make upper management responsible for the contents and correctness of such letters. After all, in most Federal activities, the letter itself is written by a human resources (HR) specialist to avoid error of form or fact. As I looked into delegating such a simple authority down to the lowest level, many aspects of employee relations came to light.

Two types of supervision

Federal supervisors (the first level of management) fall into two categories. Some are virtually full-time managers. They do very little of the work they performed so well (assuming they were “best qualified”) before being promoted. Such is the case for most blue-collar supervisors and many in white collar areas as well. Machinist Foremen often go for months without turning a wrench.  Social Security “Operations Supervisors” only took claims under extraordinary circumstances back when I worked at SSA.

Other supervisors manage only on a part-time basis. I’ve taught seminars for scientists, engineers, and many others whose supervisory time equates to 20% or less of an average work week. In other words, some Feds get full-time supervision, some part-time, and others virtually none – especially those in remote locations.

One thing that both kinds of supervisors have in common is a desire to effectively deal with their worst employees. No doubt, some are the cause of their own problems, but readers of this article should imagine lining up a large work group (say, 10 or more people) in “best-to-worst” employee order. Who’s in last place? Why? What can the boss do about it?

Who’s in charge here?

When an honest supervisor (not an oxymoron in my experience) tells me that an employee’s conduct or behavior is what has landed them in “last place”, some sort of disciplinary response may be needed. I’d prefer a mediated conversation (See War and Peace: Should You Discipline or Mediate?) but there are times when an employee will not acknowledge or take responsibility for his own conduct.

If, however, a decision is made to issue a written reprimand, why shouldn’t the supervisor sign that document? I am not suggesting the supervisor act alone or in isolation. HR assistance will, no doubt, be part of the process. Moreover, a second-level supervisor should be afforded the courtesy and respect of knowing such action is being considered and/or taken.

In most cases I run across, the employee has already been counseled, given documented warnings, etc. – all by the supervisor. It’s illogical to have someone removed from the action step in to sign a reprimand, which is the next progressive step. Moreover, it’s unclear as to how/why such a practice came into existence.

The “Us v. Them” Distraction

Don’t expect the employee who receives an official reprimand to say, “Thanks, I needed this!” Specialists in my field will tell you that a grievance or EEO complaint is likely in such disciplinary cases. Accordingly, reprimands are not trivial or without risk even though they are soon to be expunged.

My greater concern is that such a policy undermines a supervisors’ authority to lead. Real leadership comes with the acknowledgement of real risks. To err is human – especially if you’re paid to make decisions. The number of times I have to back up and apologize is reflective of both the quality of my decisions and the chances I’m willing to take.

Discipline is an essential part of any leader’s role. Whether it’s a parent, a staff sergeant or an office manager, leaders are occasionally called upon to enforce the rules. When the rule-breaker is afforded the right to protest such disciplinary action, that shouldn’t change the lens regarding who’s in charge and how/why the decision was made to use discipline.

Raise your right hand

In the technical world of labor/employee relations, different concern arises. A reprimand signed by a supervisor’s boss (or boss’s boss) is now based on “hearsay” evidence – usually the supervisor’s story/recollection/documentation. Having upper levels of management sign off on such actions is only making the process more time consuming, expensive, and (dare I write it after David Orr’s recent FedSmith article?) bureaucratic.

HR specialists are trained to expect a worst case scenario. Accordingly, we are assessing fact patterns and likely witnesses from the get-go. Bypassing the supervisor ensures two managers must testify instead of one, should a hearing be necessary. The supervisor is needed because he was the person immediately aware of, and affected by, the employee’s conduct. The manager is also needed because she signed the reprimand. Most litigators will prefer the simpler approach.

I also want the signer of a disciplinary document to be readily available for witness preparation meetings, studying relevant documentation, waiting to testify, etc. Having to schedule and tie up a senior manager’s time can prove difficult and awkward. They have too many other matters pressing on them. A first-level supervisor is likely to be more accessible and attentive if testimony is required.

Finally, when you ask a witness “Do you know the grievant?” wouldn’t you prefer the response “I supervise her work everyday”? Additional questions also become more effectively answered by a supervisor. “Have you experienced many problems with him?” or “Have you found other employees you supervise sleeping at their desks?” “Can you recall being spoken to in that manner by others in your work group?”

Small is beautiful

Another concern shared by HR specialist when considering disciplinary cases is consistency. Perhaps the most important of the 12 Douglas Factors (from the Merit Systems Protection Boards decision in Douglas, et.al. v Veterans Administration is number “6”. It reads, “…consistency of the penalty with those imposed upon other employees for the same or similar offenses”.

In HR parlance, such inconsistencies are referred to as “disparate treatment”. In my experience, it’s better to address allegations of disparate treatment from the position of a first-level supervisor than from her boss’s (or boss’s boss’s) perch. A supervisor’s level of consistency (among a dozen subordinates) is easier to understand and defend than a senior manager’s (among 70… or 700).

Senior-level managers may also find their required involvement a distraction. They often find themselves spending valuable time learning the details of minor infractions. If their time and attention to these matters is so important, why expunge the letters in a year or two? We can only hope they have more pressing matters at hand.

Timeliness is yet another concern. To be effective, discipline should be as immediate (or proximate to the offending events) as possible. Punishing your kid days after seeing him running into the street to retrieve a stray ball is both petty and ineffective. Likewise, waiting weeks for so many levels of HR and management to concur on a reprimand diminishes its corrective value.

Investing in leadership

In seminar after seminar I am gratified to meet so many bright, talented, and decent Federal supervisors. Admittedly, many of them lack needed communication skills, and a few aren’t trustworthy. Most, however, are trying hard to do the right thing. If we teach supervisors the basics (it takes me at least two days) and let them make an occasional error in judgement, we may find them to be much more effective leaders in the long run.

Looking beyond reprimands, I would prefer having supervisors propose 1-14-day suspensions for the same reasons enumerated above. Someone higher in the chain of command will inevitably review and sign as well in the role of “deciding official”. Likewise, I would prefer limiting upper management’s propensity to change supervisory performance appraisal ratings without clear cause.

Over time, if supervisors are treated as valued decision-makers, they will find it easier to handle their own jobs and (perhaps) those of at higher levels in the future. Signature authority for a document as basic as a reprimand is a good place to start.

Now is a good time to begin.

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.