It’s Time to Wake up and Call Back

Which is worse for a Federal agency to have, a bad employee or a bad supervisor? No doubt, the government would rather have neither, but the author says the effects of inept, biased, or malevolent leaders are among the greatest risks to your agency’s mission.

Which is worse for a Federal agency to have, a bad employee or a bad supervisor? No doubt, the government would rather have neither, but the effects of inept, biased, or malevolent leaders are among the greatest risks to your agency’s mission. Their subordinates may be filing grievances and complaints by the boatload, leaving in droves, and/or less likely to support a mission in which they believe; however, the finger seldom points toward individual leaders in a way that jeopardizes their status/standing.

Dealing with tenured supervisors can prove difficult, as “bad management” is often difficult to define. As with “bad parenting”, beauty or the lack thereof, remains in the eyes of beholders. Moreover, procedural due process and appeal rights have paralyzed middle managers for decades. Probation, however, is different.

Probation stagnation

There are two kinds of probation for civilian employees in the Executive Branch. One is for those being hired into their first full-time position and the other for employees permanently promoted to supervisor for the first time. In the case of a new hire, probation basically means that the selection process continues for a year from the date they begin work. Anytime agency management realizes the employee is a bad fit, they can terminate that person as if they were non-selecting them for permanent employment.

Supervisory probation lasts a full year and was brought to government in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The rationale for its inclusion was the best employees don’t necessarily make the best leaders. As with the new employee trial period, an individual’s supervisory shortcomings will become evident over the course of a year and, should they fail their probation, they will be returned to their old job or one that’s comparable.

Is anyone home?

I recently made a data request of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) concerning supervisory probation. During the previous calendar year, 23,239 individuals were promoted to supervisor… subject to passing probation. During that same calendar year, only 2 supervisors were bumped back. That’s not a typo. Less than one in approximately 10,000 new supervisors was found deficient.

This problem has been known to Human Resources folks for many years. The OPM’s website has a long-ago Wake-Up Call that reads in part,

A new supervisor is given a 1-year probationary period to demonstrate successful performance as a supervisor. …The study reports that agencies are not using this probationary period effectively. According to OPM’s Central Personnel Data File, only two supervisors in all of Government were removed during their probationary period in fiscal year 1998. The probationary period does not appear to weed out those supervisors who are not performing well as supervisors. Agencies need to monitor the performance of their probationary supervisors; provide them training, coaching, and feedback; and take action to improve performance or to return poor performing supervisors to non-supervisory positions.

In a 2010 report subtitled “A Call to Action”, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) offered this up:

It is unlikely that so few new supervisors would be unsuccessful during the probationary period. This extremely low probationary failure rate among Federal supervisors indicates that many new supervisors are probably being allowed to continue in a supervisory role despite marginal or unsatisfactory performance during the probationary period

It seems obvious that the alarm clocks are ringing into deaf ears. A large proportion of blame can be aimed at my own professional community – Human Capital (nee Human Resource) Management. HR/HC is clearly more focused on recruitment, qualifications and selection than on success. The avalanche of data reaching their desks, shows that leadership development (which would presumably include weeding the same garden one is watering) is sorely lacking Uncle Sam’s backyard. But reports and studies haven’t led to change.

A simple first step

In many agencies, the first year of supervisory development continues to be little more than a 40-hour, ungraded class. From there on, it’s sink or swim. During my travels, I’ve encountered agency programs that employ “mentors” and “coaches” for new supervisors. The OPM statistics, however, indicate they lack decision-making authority when it comes to the new supervisor’s fitness to continue a career in leadership.

It’s time for OPM and CHCOs to devise a rudimentary process for monitoring newly appointed supervisors. As with new employees (see my article on that subject), I suggest that they begin by requiring quarterly evaluations during probation. It could include an abbreviated checklist concerning aptitude and character traits and call for areas in need of improvement and must be signed by a 2nd level or above.

I know that quarterly reminders will be ignored by thousands and fail to cull out many bad selectees. This mechanism is just a first brush stroke on a bare canvas. It would, however, make supervisory probation visible to those who can exercise the prerogative of moving failing supervisors back to what they do best and is 100% more than what seems to be happening now.

Information technologists can easily set up an automated reminder/notice. Similar notices are generated prior to scheduled step increases to verify “acceptable level of competence”. Others can draft the content of the notices without much fanfare… and no need for negotiation with unions. If the numbers coming from OPM change significantly (2 to 10 would be stunning), the success of this simple plan can be validated with ease.

Crossing our fingers

Bird-dogging the progress of newly appointed supervisors may eventually become important to those who focus on management/leadership development. Senior executives may someday demand information indicating who in the sea of middle management is/isn’t taking supervisory probation seriously. In my mind, that can only be good news when facing an ocean of data exposing deficiencies among Federal supervisors and managers.

In the end, it is never easy to deliver bad news regarding an employee’s ability to do her/his job. This is especially true for those who have recently advanced to new challenges of leadership. Supervisory probation, however, has been a neglected matter of law for 35 years and it’s time those responsible for implementing it answered the call. Competent Feds deserve competent leadership.

If you believe the law regarding a Federal supervisory probation period should be taken more seriously, you have a voice. The Chief Human Capital Offers Council’s contact information is available on the CHCOC website or their Facebook page.

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