Who Says We Have Unacceptable Performers?

The author says that there are too many managers who believe it’s impossible to rid the government of unacceptable performers, but that a recent report from the GAO shows otherwise. He outlines some reasons why managers tend to freeze when addressing problem employees as well as some suggestions for ways to better deal with these types of situations.

I began my career in personnel in 1980, having already worked as a front-line employee for the Social Security Administration for 5 years.  Within a year, I was assigned to implement the (then) new law regarding performance appraisals for ~8,500 Navy civilians.  According to that statute, Feds had to be evaluated against “critical elements” and “performance standards” by the start of fiscal year 1981-2.

Later, as a non-attorney, I was assigned to present our shipyard’s first removal done in accordance with that law (5 USC §4302 and 5 CFR §432) to an MSPB administrative judge.  As is common in such cases, the employee had been incompetent for over 3 years before a new supervisor (most commonly the case) raised the issue and took it on.

Back then, the employee was given 30 days of intense scrutiny and assistance to demonstrate acceptable (in Navy’s case back then, “Marginal”) performance.  If he failed to do this, which is what happened, he could have been reassigned, demoted or removed according to the departmental performance appraisal directive.

How close to zero is this number?

In a recent report, the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that in 2013 agencies dismissed fewer than .2% (1/500) of the Federal workforce for reasons that included job performance.  If probationary cases (70%) are removed from this data, the number of tenured employees who were given performance improvement plans (PIPs), failed, and were removed is essentially zero.

Of that miniscule fraction of Feds who were fired for reasons of unacceptable job performance, 125 filed appeals with the Merit Systems Protection Board, about half of those cases settled.  Only 4 prevailed.  Usually settlements involve changing an involuntary separation to a resignation with references to the performance-based action removed from the employee’s personnel records.

Almost equal to the number of dismissals for performance-related reasons are the number of Feds OPM says left their jobs voluntarily after receiving performance ratings below fully successful.  These cases involve resignations and retirements.  Missing is data for those who, after failing a PIP, are offered lower-graded positions and decide upon a voluntary change to that position.  The hope is that they can succeed at those duties without forcing them into such jobs via demotions.

These numbers are both pathetic and significant.  On the one hand, according to the data, virtually no Federal employees are incompetent.  I urge readers to balance that with their own experiences.  How many of you who have worked with someone who was over-graded based on what they are/were capable of doing?  In other words, they were paid GS-11/WG-10 money but could only do the work of a GS-9/WG-8.  I’m guessing the numbers run higher than 1 of every 1000 tenured Federal employees.

Looking for answers

So why do agencies fail to identify and/or deal with incompetence?  Over many years of instructing seminars on this subject, I’ve found several answers to this question.  Some of these are cited in the GAO report.  Other explanations cannot be supported by reviewing statistics provided by the Office of Personnel Management.  They have more to deal with behaviors and emotions.

  1. Supervisors are discouraged when it comes to identifying and confronting problems.  I once presented a seminar with the help of the wise and learned Bernard Robinson.  Bernard described the management environment in that agency as “Good news only.”  It hit the nail on the head so many others I was to find in decades to come.  In a good news only workplace, Federal middle managers often blame the supervisor’s leadership when problems come to light.
  2. HR specialists and agency attorneys often demand much more documentation than a case will likely require.  Probationary terminations require minimal evidence if contested.  Performance-based actions only need enough evidence to show that the supervisor’s characterization of the employee’s unacceptable performance is likely true (“substantial evidence”).  Disciplinary cases demand a “preponderance of evidence” meaning that the supervisor’s case is more likely true than false.  I hear tales of HR representatives wanting so much documentation you would think they face a burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” used in criminal law.  The supervisor often throws in the towel having too much else to do.
  3. The likelihood that employees will grieve, file EEO complaints, or MSPB appeals makes action unappealing for supervisors.  As demonstrated by the GAO data, the chance that the agency will prevail in such environments is very high, but the time, expense, and distraction give one pause.  Moreover, HR representatives often have little knowledge of how those hearings work and fear them.
  4. Issues of incompetence are much harder to deal with than those concerning misbehavior – not that the latter are easy.  Most of those whose performance is deemed unacceptable are nice decent folks who, often through no fault of their own, are unable to do much of what they’re paid to do.  They are often inherited from supervisors who neglected them.  A long history of inaction tends to give a supervisor pause.  The past ratings have nothing to do with the current case, but they often prove a disincentive to initiating action.
  5. Managers get little training on the subject of incompetence and how to deal with it.  I can’t count the number of evaluation comments I’ve received after a two-day seminar on this subject that read something like, “I needed this training 10 years ago” or “Why don’t supervisors learn this when they enter a leadership position?”  Such comments don’t just from front-line supervisors but also 2nd and 3rd-level managers, upon who they rely.
  6. Many of those higher level managers were selected for their administrative skills and willingness to support those in top leadership.  I understand the value of these qualities.  They can be of great value to subordinate supervisors.  I’ve heard many dozens of stories from supervisors; however, who were told to back off of PIPs or allowed to complete them… only to see the employee reassigned.  Reassignment should have been considered before having a supervisor commit to the PIP!

Where’s the wizard

Like the cowardly lion in the Land of Oz, immediate supervisors need an infusion of courage.  The motivation to confront poor performers isn’t visible and the potential for discouragement is obvious.  Any sentence to this most-important level of leadership that begins with, “You should…” will fall on deaf ears.  Instead, supervisors need to hear from HR and senior management something like, “We’ll be there for you if…”

There are too many managers who believe it’s impossible to rid the government of unacceptable performers.  Given the appeal statistics revealed in the GAO’s report, that’s malarkey.  What’s really difficult is to get agencies to develop a culture or mission that encourages leadership to get started.  That must include a network that supports and encourages supervisors to confront and deal with performance and conduct issues.  So far, that message has yet to become visible.

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.