The Perils of Poor Performance

By David Hornestay

January 1, 2001

when a series of rockets blew up on their launching pads in the early days of the U.S. space program, wise-acres labeled them civil servants because "they won't work and they can't be fired." The federal government may well have cleaned up its reputation in space, but here on terra firma, it still struggles with its image of tolerating poor performers. Not surprisingly, only 28 percent of respondents in a 1999 National Partnership for Reinventing Government survey reported that corrective actions were taken by agency managers against poor performers. In a 1996 Merit Systems Protection Board survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said the lack of upper management support was one reason they chose not to take action against poor performers.

Clouded Picture

Varied definitions of poor performance only cloud the extent of the problem. In its January 1999 study, "Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story," the Office of Personnel Management said, "Our best estimate of the proportion of poor performers in the federal workforce is 3.7 percent," concluding that it was not "a serious performance problem." Critics pointed out that the report was based on a telephone survey of supervisors using a definition with multiple subjective elements specially created for the survey.

Regardless of their numbers, poor performers can hurt morale. "Even a small number of poor performers, if not dealt with effectively, can have a negative impact much larger than their actual numbers would suggest," the Merit Systems Protection Board said in its 1999 study, "Federal Supervisors and Poor Performers."

However, most managers, human resources practitioners and observers agree that significant numbers of employees are doing sub-par work and fail to respond to standard training and counseling remedies. In a 1996 MSPB report, 44 percent of employees surveyed believed their agencies failed to adequately correct performance, and just over half said their agencies failed to fire people who didn't improve. But MSPB noted that the lack of disciplinary action is about more than simple inattention or neglect. The human dimension makes these cases complex and emotionally draining.

In an unusually moving passage for a government report, one MSPB survey respondent told of his anguish over having to fire a family man with 20 years of satisfactory service. The employee couldn't do his current job, but seemed capable of performing adequately elsewhere in the agency, as he had done previously. The supervisor tried to make the case that the selection had been a mistake and that reassignment was appropriate, but upper-level managers refused to support such a move. The employee ultimately lost his job, but only after a prolonged adversarial process that was stressful for everyone involved.

Solving The Problem

Fortunately, several agencies have developed ways to deal with poor performers. This year, a blue ribbon interagency work group on performance management sent a report to the President's Management Council, offering this three-pronged strategy for dealing with problem employees:


The work group's recommendations ranged from simplifying the process for removing poor performers to establishing early intervention practices, such as the following:

The key to dealing with poor performers is to start early and muster the support needed to turn them into good performers. Dismissal, although it should be the last resort, is sometimes necessary, but it should be supported by a record of constructive team effort.

By David Hornestay

January 1, 2001

http://www.govexec.com/magazine/magazine-management/2001/01/the-perils-of-poor-performance/8172/