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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Blame Weak Management, Not Lack of Authority, for Poor Performers

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President Trump’s May 25th executive order making it easier to fire employees who don’t meet performance standards seeks to streamline the process and minimize the burden on supervisors.

By and large, I agree with the approach and philosophy set forth in the executive order. Federal supervisors should have the ability to remove poor performers in a straightforward manner and not be constrained by well-intentioned rules, regulations and procedures that make it very time-consuming and difficult to terminate bad employees. The probationary period most certainly should be used to weed out employees who should not become permanent. That simply makes sense. But for the most part, federal supervisors already have the ability to do all of the things described in the order.

For example, many if not most federal agencies already have options that provide for a range of penalties, including removal where appropriate. Moreover, officials usually have the flexibility to exceed the recommended range in cases that warrant removal.

Agencies also may take into account all of an employee’s past misconduct—not only similar past misconduct. Furthermore, management officials have the opportunity to terminate probationers who are not good fits. However, far too often they don’t remove probationers when they should.

The problem as I see it is that management officials, often based on the advice of human resource management officials, have tended to take an overly conservative approach when dealing with problem employees. As a result, they have tended to take the weakest possible action, which has resulted in employees believing that management is not serious about accountability. This emboldens poor employees to continue their negative ways.

If managers applied the principle of progressive discipline properly, they would see that the rotten apples only change their ways when management takes strong actions that place their jobs in jeopardy. For those otherwise good employees who may be experiencing personal problems, I recommend moving more slowly because their work history is different.

But for poor employees, there are only two successful outcomes—either you change the employee or you change the employee. And the tools are already there to do just that.

The Impact of the EO

The executive order cannot be implemented in a vacuum. Actions taken against poor performers are appealable to third parties such as the Merit Systems Protection Board, arbitrators and sometimes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This always needs to be taken into account by management when contemplating an action. The order has no impact on the ability of third parties to reverse a personnel action it considers to be improper.

Also, certain employee rights may have been negotiated through collective bargaining. For instance, the number of days to respond to a proposed removal may have been extended during negotiations. The executive order cannot reverse this. The point here is that the EO doesn’t really give managers any more tools. What it does is remind them to use the tools that currently exist, which is fine, but it only addresses a part of the problem.

The Key Issue

The real problem is the culture of the federal government, which tends to encourage inaction over action. There are several reasons for this. For instance, one of them is the protections offered to employees, which I certainly support. However, over the years certain employees have learned to use these protections as a strategy to literally bury management with complaints, and as a result, discourage them from moving forward with a removal. I am not arguing that we do away with these protections. Rather, I am saying that the sooner you address a problem employee, the fewer the complaints you will receive and the less complex the case will ultimately be.

Historically, in order to avoid dealing with grievances, EEO complaints, unfair labor practice complaints, etc., managers often move problem employees rather than go through the headache of trying to fire them. It’s a complaint I hear frequently whenever I provide supervisory training or speak with government employees. After all, people want to be part of a winning organization and they want management to remove poor performers.

Another reason for the current culture stems from the exodus of experienced human resources management advisors in the 1990’s under the Reinventing Government initiative. The people who replaced them did not have experienced mentors to turn to and as a result, they have fostered an often overly conservative and risk-averse approach to dealing with performance problems. The Office of Personnel Management is trying to improve the skill sets of today’s HR officials and I applaud them for that effort.

The administration’s goals are laudable, but to truly ingrain accountability in many federal organizations, it will first have to change the culture.

Stewart Liff is an HRM, performance management, visual management and team development expert, and the president and CEO of the consulting company Stewart Liff & Associates, Inc. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees, A Team of Leaders and Seeing is Believing. He can be reached at stew@stewartliff.com.

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