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

You Can’t Legislate Accountability

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The Merit Systems Protection Board recently looked at the results of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act and its impact on dealing with poor performers.

As Government Executive recently reported, MSPB attributed long-cited difficulties with firing poor performers to managers, rather than the law itself. While the Civil Service Reform Act provided an alternative method for removing an employee, “only 42 percent of performance-based personnel actions between 1996 and 2017 used this new authority,” MSPB found. The board noted:

“Not only do many agencies have policies requiring formal improvement plans, but many require additional steps, such as a minimum duration for the improvement period or offering an informal improvement opportunity before the official improvement period,” the agency wrote. “[The] CSRA attempted not only to make it easier to fire poor performers, but also to improve the government’s ability to manage employee performance. MSPB’s research indicates that the key to addressing poor performance lies not in the language of the laws and regulations, but in effective implementation and having supervisors who are willing, prepared and permitted to address poor performance.”

I agree with MSPB’s conclusions to a large degree. However, I would argue that the key issue is this: You can’t legislate accountability. True accountability only occurs when an organization (or for that matter, the entire federal government) has a culture that values performance, sends everyone a clear and consistent message as to what is expected and is prepared to act when appropriate. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many federal employees (as shown in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results) and other interested parties, that does not currently exist in many places in the government.

What does a culture that values performance look like? It looks something like this:

Performance is constantly measured, reviewed, analyzed and discussed. Realistic but stretch performance goals are established annually and are changed when circumstances dictate. Everyone knows what these goals are, what they mean and where they come from.

Actual performance is posted in strategic locations for everyone to see so there are no surprises or secrets. Groups, or preferably teams, constantly discuss their performance, sometimes as often as daily, so that adjustments are made as quickly as possible.

Individuals also receive frequent feedback, sometimes verbally, sometimes via a report card or other form of written communication and other times through public posting of everyone’s performance, if it makes sense.

Finally there are reliable and transparent consequences at every level of performance for both individuals and groups. In other words, high performers can expect to be rewarded and have the upper hand when competing for promotions; average performers can expect to keep their jobs, receive within-grade increases and compete for promotions; and low performers can expect that action will be taken to help them improve their performance and, if that fails, to be removed from their positions.

When everyone works together according to a common set of values, it becomes easier to deal with poor performers. Supervisors are trained on what to do and are prepared to do it. They hopefully have savvy advisors guiding them through the process who can help them overcome obstacles and provide them with perspective, and they know upper management will support them if they have a good case. If employees see that the system works fairly and as intended, they too will generally be supportive of management.

Legislation that makes it easier for supervisors to deal with difficult people, while providing due process that is fair and manageable, is definitely a good thing. For example I see no reason why the standard of proof for removing a poor performer under Chapter 43, which is “substantial evidence,” shouldn’t be the same under Chapter 75, which is currently “preponderance of the evidence.”

The way the system is currently configured can make it difficult for management to deal with a problem employee, but in my view, management has all of the tools at its disposal to get the job done. The key is having the right culture, which involves having the will and the skill to deal with problem employees.

Stewart Liff is an HRM, visual performance 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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