Cracking the Whip

Managers often lack the training to discipline bad actors on their staffs.

Dealing with a difficult employee is perhaps the greatest challenge for any boss. Federal managers, especially, tend to think their hands are tied when it comes to meting out corrective or disciplinary action. But the real barrier to addressing personnel problems often is a lack of managerial training. Robbie Kunreuther, a labor and employee relations specialist and founder of Government Personnel Services, a Seattle-based company that offers seminars on supervising difficult employees, says managers are "stunningly ignorant" about their options for handling poor performers and even insubordinate employees. And without knowing their options and the most effective techniques, they are woefully ill-equipped to respond to the myriad human resources issues that can arise.

"There are as many problems as there are employees," Kunreuther says.

"Abstenteeism is very different from belligerence, for example. But all of them have one thing in common, that there are basic rules of the workplace and these people are testing or violating them."

The challenge with this wide range of problems is it requires an equally varied arsenal of potential responses. While Kunreuther advises managers to tailor their responses to the individual employee, he says there are four basic principles they should keep in mind regardless of the situation.

Respond to the problem. Kunreuther sees two common approaches among managers in this situation. "They either overreact, or they put their head in sand," he says. "My sense is the more common response is nonconfrontation."

Be direct. Make clear how the employee's behavior is hampering the team's productivity. "We tend to forget that 'problem employee' is a broad brush," Kunreuther says. "Most good employees who present problems, when they're told, will stop. A casual remark or reminder is actually the most common form of discipline, just saying, 'That's not the way we do things here.' And most people are responsive to that."

Be honest without throwing punches. This is somewhat of a balancing act, requiring candor and level-headedness, and can be particularly challenging when dealing with an insubordinate employee.

Document the discussion. For many, the instinct is not to document an informal conversation about a behavioral or performance issue. Supervisors should follow their gut in determining whether putting it on record is appropriate, Kunreuther says. "If it caused any kind of butterflies in your stomach, the recommendation is to document," he adds. "Anxiety is the sign to document."

So when should managers go beyond these early steps and consider disciplinary actions such as formal reprimands, or even suspensions? If an employee becomes defiant the manager should consider making that call, Kunreuther says. "When it feels as if the employee is making it a contest-either you'll win or they will-then formal discipline is appropriate," he explains.

"When your mom or dad thought you were being insubordinate . . . they'd ground you, take away your cell phone-a formal response," he says. "And when somebody calls in sick and goes to a bowling tournament . . . we're talking about rather childish behavior."

Managers' responses are only as effective as the disciplinary process that guides them. Agency leaders and officials at the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit System Protection Board could help managers by updating "antiquated" procedures, Kunreuther observes. He suggests a "three strikes, you're out" system, in which employees who received three formal reprimands would be dismissed.

Kunreuther also encourages more mediation to resolve misconduct or poor performance before it reaches the boiling point. "It's very difficult to participate in a discussion that you have to both manage and participate," Kunreuther says. "Bringing the discussion to a third party in mediation frees up the supervisor to be a participant."

Alternative forms of discipline offer another path to resolution, including community service hours in lieu of suspensions, or a public apology to individuals affected by an employee's misconduct. But a 2008 MSPB survey of 22 agencies showed that most were providing managers little or no guidance on these options.

When supervisors don't know what tools they have at their disposal to address conduct issues, it can make a tough situation even tougher.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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