The Effects of Rotting Apples

The author says that some of the most talented employees in government are looking away from it as a potential employer when they are needed more than ever.

One of the oldest management axioms follows along these lines, “Your best people can and will leave you.  Your worst people can’t and won’t.”  It was never truer in the Federal government than it is now.  Some of the most talented attorneys, engineers, lab technicians, auditors, etc. are looking away from Uncle Sam when they are most needed.

Valuing the worst among us

In many cases their desire to leave is understandable.  Tens of thousands of Feds work with the mentality of: “That’s not in my job description.”; “Why should I do more than anyone else around here?; “I know others who got away with it.”; and “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Trying to do more with less while working with such folks can prove draining.

As morale becomes problematic under the weight of sequestration, furloughs, cost-of-living maladjustments, freezes, etc. it may be time for agency management to consider the costs of tolerance.  What do the worst 5% in your agency add in value… and what do they subtract?  A smaller group can often do a better job and feel better about coming to work when that person isn’t around.

This small minority of Feds may be “more trouble than they are worth”… literally.  She may be very nice and agreeable, but over years has been unable to keep up with coworkers.  He may be very good at what he does, but emanates toxicity – in his rants, treatment of coworkers, or denial of responsibility for his own behavior.  Having worked for the Navy, the expression “shape up or ship out” comes to mind.

The blame game

There are some FedSmith readers who believe that employees who cannot perform the duties they are paid to do (and others whose antics are more aligned with high school kids than adults) are a reflection of failed leadership. I never debate that possibility.  There are lots of lousy leaders in the Federal sector.

That acknowledged, most of the front-line leaders I meet are just Feds who wanted more money and/or challenges.  Management was their only option.  They did their jobs well and ascended to leadership with the best of intentions.  They hoped to do better than the person they replaced, however, career managers get little coherent training and coaching on how to treat one’s best employees (other than cash awards), how to motivate the great middle to improve, and especially how to deal with the worst.

Now these folks must lead with fewer resources than they could have expected.  To these front line leaders I commonly advise that a long conversation, referral to employee assistance, or a mediated conversation often bring about desired changes in performance or conduct with little intervention.  Only a misanthrope would argue against such approaches.  When those positive efforts fail, however, it’s time to acknowledge that your agency is neither a welfare department nor a vocational rehabilitation service.

The hidden costs of inaction

Consider Mary.  She supervises 14 people.  Three are absolutely wonderful; eight range from good to mediocre; one demands regular attention to stay focused and organized; while the last two present significant problems.

The first of this duo is Tim.  He carps and whines about assignments, other employees, the public he serves, and leadership.  His attitude has been toxic for years.  Mary wishes he would just evaporate.  He wishes the same of her.  Past supervisors have tried reason, persuasion and reprimands – all to no avail.

The other member of this pair is Janelle.  She is cheerful, agreeable, and incompetent.  Her assignments are 2-4 grade levels below her position.  Mary has found that assigning her work at grade level isn’t worth the time and expense of reviewing,  re-working, coaching, etc.  All of Janelle’s recent ratings have been “Fully Successful” for any number of reasons that don’t amount to an excuse.

Mary doesn’t want to confront and/or discipline Tim.  Others advise her that formal action is unlikely to change his behavior… and very likely to result in grievances or EEO complaints.  Such push-back would result in investigations, administrative litigation… and Mary is uncertain whether HR or her superiors will have her back.  As for Janelle, Mary believes (mistakenly) that prior acceptable ratings will jeopardize any case this rating cycle, and that she’ll have to rate Janelle “Minimally Successful” before she can use the rating of “Unacceptable” (again mistaken).  Moreover, a “Performance Improvement Plan” may prove more time and energy than it’s worth.

It’s time to recalculate

Mary’s paralysis may be understandable; however, two of her top 3 staff members are putting in for any job that suits their qualifications.  One is likely to leave government altogether.  He’s tired of the (seemingly endless) assaults on Federal employees and of doing more work than his coworkers without compensating recognition.  The other is so fed up with Tim and his griping that she’ll work almost anywhere else just to get away from negative atmosphere he engenders.

This fictional composite of real stories reveals the hidden costs of avoidance.  It also reminds us that the perceived outlays associated with PIPs, grievances, EEO complaints, etc. may be miscalculated if the focus is narrowed to just one employee.  As teachers and parents know, giving a passing grade to a failing child is likely to cost more than it saves, and failing to address behavior issues may encourage increased misbehavior among others.

A matter of competence and confidence

After 38 years working in and for the Executive Branch, it’s clear to me that talented, hard-working folks prefer leaders who don’t run from confrontations, polarization, and similar challenges.  Our best civil servants are more likely to stay in government, even in hard times, if their unmotivated/inept counterparts see consequences.  Supervisory confrontation may prove as simple as a clear statement of expectations or as complicated as removal.

What coworkers want to see is evidence that management is aware of and working the problem.  After all, if management wants employees who will accept and meet today’s workplace challenges, shouldn’t leadership do likewise?  Over time, subordinates know if they’re working for someone who confronts or avoids such problems.

A Human Capital idea

“But it takes so long and costs so much… and the employee will inevitably return triumphant.”  Yes and No.  It does take too long and the cost of firing a Federal worker who deserved to be fired months/years ago is often exorbitant.  That acknowledged, assume that the process costs an obscene $100,000, what benefits will accrue over the next two years in terms of productivity, morale, loyalty, and retention?  …and agencies win far more contested actions than they lose.

These are issues of “Human Capital”, a title I dislike but which applies directly to my concerns.  Perhaps this article should be forwarded to your agency’s Human Capital Officer (CHCO).  Such senior executives should be investing in the employee relations side of their HR offices.  If  staffing and employee development are experiencing smaller workloads due to cuts, allocating resources to the more active side of HR seems logical.  Demanding times are seldom met by calcified structures.

In a similar vein, first level supervisors and managers should be encouraged (as they may have been discouraged in the past) to confront the worst of the workforce.  Most have fine staffs and needn’t heed such advice.  Others have been waiting years for a “green light”.  CHCOs should live up to their titles, advising managers of the budgetary implications that result from neglecting what lies at the bottom of their agency’s workforce barrel… and then supporting efforts to act.

A world with fewer carrots

How many needed classes could agencies schedule if an incompetent employee weren’t paid 4 grade levels higher than he’s working?  How many medical, scientific, or HR conferences could Feds attend if the woman who spends hours each day getting out of work weren’t paid for it?

Many agencies are reacting to sequestration by cutting budgets for efforts that would save them scarce funds.  Supervisors and managers need the backing of their leadership to do what many have long wanted to do all along.  They need training in how to confront and deal with those who are frustrating their coworkers on a week-in/week-out basis… and support for taking action their predecessors avoided.

With fewer carrots available to motivate the Federal workforce (which everyone regrets), smart leaders must look to sticks in some cases.  While this is not a pretty thought, neither are furloughs and brain drains.  Like most voters, I believe the Executive Branch of government could do a better job finding savings.  Like most FedSmith readers, I know where a bunch of those savings are likely to be found.

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