Performance Management and Angry, Frustrated and Dissatisfied Employees

Performance management is a serious problem in government and the government has a large number of employees who are dissatisfied, frustrated and angry.

It looks like FedSmith is not the only website looking for feedback from readers – but FedSmith was first. This past week the Washington Post asked a similar question, asking readers if they knew how much they would be paid in the private sector. We received over 500 responses to the five survey questions in the article How Well Are Government Employees Paid? Author Responds to Reader Comments.

My background is relevant to this. I have 40+ years as a consultant focusing on pay and performance issues. I keep saying I’ll get a real job sometime. My clients have included everything from large corporations to hospitals to state courts to universities. I have discussed those issues with thousands of people. At the federal level I managed the project that resulted in The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA) and since then have had contacts with virtually every department and major agency. Actually I also managed the pay programs in two large corporations along the way. Years ago a corporate officer picked up a phone and threw it across a room when I was sent to tell him about a new policy. Yes, pay can be an emotional issue. I can safely say I have heard it all.

As a confession, I got involved in both the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) and the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (NICCP/DCIPS) but well after both were planned and the implementation underway. It was obvious there were problems months before Congress got involved. I have also had opportunities to evaluate several demo projects so I know government can have pay programs that are as successful and solidly accepted as the private sector. The experience with the endless meetings leading to the passage of FEPCA gave me a unique opportunity to understand how government works. You learn fast how many people have to agree, at least tacitly, in order to change a federal government system.

Experience With Pay for Performance?

The first question asked if readers had experience with pay for performance. Surprisingly 82% of the individuals who responded to this question said that they had and most, when they named the agency, mentioned NSPS or DCIPS – the DoD pay systems. A few referred to the cash performance awards as their experience, which is correct of course.

Roughly half the responses included comments on their experience – and although it’s not possible to categorize them all, close to 90% were in some way negative. The overwhelming complaint was bias and favoritism. There were also a number of complaints about the NSPS pay pools. The question did not ask for comments but clearly employees want to express their feelings. Several people mentioned their experience in the private sector.

How Well Did Supervisors Handle Discussion of Performance Ratings and Pay?

The second question asked how well supervisors handled the discussion of performance ratings and pay. Here the responses were mixed and close to evenly spread from very well to very poorly. More than a few said there was no discussion. Several others stated they were asked to write their own review and sign it. One stated he received his rating and feedback by email although his supervisor is only two offices away.

Government is not unique of course. If there is one almost universal problem that undermines the effectiveness of performance management, it’s that managers and supervisors do not spend enough time discussing these issues with their people.

But I have to say everyone knows this is a key. To use an analogy, a football coach who did not communicate the game plan and then provided no advice in practice or during the game would never win.

Currently the idea of employee engagement is discussed regularly in the press. Engaged employees are more satisfied and more productive, and the way their supervisor handles performance management is a key.

It starts with supervisors making certain employees know what’s expected and how their performance will assessed. The survey results suggest that is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

How Much Did Respondents Learn About Ratings and Increases of Co-Workers?

The third question produced somewhat surprising results at least to me. It asked how much respondents learned about the ratings and increases of co-workers. I know this information is much more readily available than in the in the private sector but I was surprised to learn that for the most part respondents knew little about how co-workers were treated.

Employees naturally talk to co-workers although most respondents appreciate those comments come from individuals who are bragging or complaining.

It would be interesting to learn how employees view the ratings issue. Everyone’s above average of course so their high rating is accurate but it’s how they view the ratings of other employees that would be interesting. I have a strong sense ratings do not have much credibility.

Was Basis for Evaluating Performance Appropriate for Job Duties?

The fourth question was related to the second and asked if the basis for evaluating performance was appropriate for assigned job duties. Roughly 40% said yes. Those that disagreed almost always added comments. Several responded adamantly with “not even close” or with “Hell no”!

Evidence of Low Federal Salaries?

The final question asked about evidence showing federal salaries are low. Many employees “think” they are underpaid but can offer no specific evidence. A number refer to what they learned from friends in the private sector or to rumors at work. There are also those who know they are paid less but expressed a preference for the job security and/or the federal benefits.

There are of course job families where everyone, I suspect, agrees federal salaries are below the averages – lawyers, scientists, and technology are examples. But it’s important to point out, for example, that while the average lawyer makes roughly $130,000, the majority earn less than that.

There are also federal employees in high pay center city locations who are paid much less than their counterparts. I was involved in the discussions at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) when the locality pay areas were defined. I also managed a consulting practice in Manhattan. It should not surprise anyone to learn that Manhattan salaries are higher than those in the outlying counties of that metro area. That’s true in every city.

The pay comparisons publicized recently are a mixed bag. Some jobs are unquestionably underpaid while others are overpaid. Both the President Obama and OPM’s John Berry have acknowledged that. The recent GAO report is accurate in concluding none of the analyses to date provide convincing data.

If this survey confirmed anything, it’s that performance management is a serious problem in government. More training of supervisors is no doubt needed but my sense is that the problem is deeper and starts with the selection of supervisors. The best technical specialists rarely make good supervisors just as elite athletes rarely make good coaches.

The survey also confirmed government has a large number of people who clearly are dissatisfied, frustrated and frankly angry – and that’s attributable to institutionalized management practices. I realized long ago that workers want to be productive, and to be challenged, and have opportunities to use their capabilities fully.

Too many federal employees never realize their aspirations.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who focuses on pay and performance. His career extends over 40 years and includes years managing consulting practices for two national firms. He recently became the editor of the journal Compensation and Benefits Review. He has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.