You're Fired

Managers say terminating problem employees is one of their most distasteful responsibilities. It's also among the most important.

First, the myth: You can't fire a federal employee. In fact, more than 10,000 were involuntarily removed from their jobs in fiscal 2005. Even more resigned in lieu of termination. The Office of Personnel Management and agency human resources offices provide step-by-step guidance on how to terminate problem employees. The draft Working for America Act, which would revamp personnel systems at most agencies, proposes holding managers accountable for subordinates' job performance and streamlining processes for dealing with workers who don't do their jobs or who break important rules. Proposed Homeland Security and Defense department regulations include similar provisions.

But while it isn't impossible to get rid of a federal worker, it isn't easy, either. Managers describe it as among their worst professional experiences: a time-consuming, emotional and potentially litigious confrontation. Some avoid firing all but the most problematic employees; they weigh their options and decide to retain marginal workers rather than tackle the obstacles to removing them.

In the Merit Systems Protection Board's 1996 Merit Principles Survey, 59 percent of supervisors said they had overseen employees with performance or conduct problems (or both) in the previous two years. While just 8 percent of these managers reported taking no action at all, most took informal steps, such as working with employees to help them improve or referring them to a counseling service. Only 17 percent took formal actions, including removals, demotions and denial of pay raises.

Employees at all levels of government have noticed this reluctance to act. OPM's 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey showed that out of 80 categories, satisfaction with how managers deal with "a poor performer who cannot or will not improve" was lower than all but two other areas: telework opportunities and child-care subsidies.

As managers contemplate firing an employee, they face disincentives that can make the task seem impossible, or can eclipse its benefits. These may include time constraints, confusion about the process, lack of support from superiors, the possibility of an appeal or complaint, burdensome agency policies, uncertainty about whether the resulting vacancy will be filled, unpleasant emotional confrontations, and a host of other factors.

'A Dirty Job'

As a federal human resources executive, Joe Maas had to fire quite a few people. Looking back, one case stands out in his memory. Maas, now retired from government, was director of personnel and an assistant administrator at the Small Business Administration in the late 1970s when he had to notify a peer that the agency was taking actions to remove him for misconduct-namely, falsifying letterhead to claim fraudulent travel expenses.

Before that day, "We got along very well," Maas says. "He often brought his breakfast into my office." Maas arranged a morning meeting to present a letter of removal and explain the basis for the decision. Maas had to mask his own emotions as his former colleague and friend resigned amidst tearful remonstrations that the job loss would ruin his life. "He went out a shattered person," Maas says. "I sat down at my desk and I felt completely worn out-very sad for him and for the agency because he was a high-level official. I tried to concentrate on my work at that point, but I realized this had affected me sufficiently that I went on sick leave the rest of the day." In retrospect, Maas, who has been active in public service professional associations in the Washington area since his 1995 retirement, is glad the experience shook him. "People who like to terminate shouldn't be managers," he says. "It should be a difficult process."

Other current and former federal supervisors have similar stories. The problems that led them to fire people seem extreme: an executive who never completed a single assignment, a military civilian who took unauthorized leave from his overseas post, and workers whose addictions rendered them incapable of doing their jobs. Yet managers describe the task of removing these people as "gut wrenching," "extremely stressful" and "the most difficult experience I ever had in my 30 years [of federal service]."

The knowledge that job loss causes financial distress and can crush self-esteem weighs heavily. "It's a really, really tough thing to do," says Ruth Ann Killion, chief of the planning, research and evaluation division for the Census Bureau. "Typically, you're dealing with really young people, and often they've just gotten married or just had kids. For most of them, it's their first professional job." Killion says people who know her are shocked when she reveals that she has had to fire more than 10 employees: "They see it as incompatible with being nice."

Daniel Michels fired four people during his 37 years at the Food and Drug Administration. "I found it difficult to not either get angry or fearful or emotionally engaged in the other person's problems," he says. Though he felt confident in his decisions, he says, "doing a dirty job of that nature, you don't go home feeling good." But the emotional drain isn't the worst part, says Michels, who left government in 2000 as director of FDA's Office of Enforcement and now works as a regulatory consultant in Silver Spring, Md. "The most difficult thing is the time it takes away from managing the organization in order to document the case," he says.

The exact amount of time varies with the nature of the case-performance problems are tougher to document than misconduct, and extreme offenders are easier to re-move-as well as the agency's policies, which often are more stringent than OPM requires. Front-line supervisors must spend a hugely disproportionate amount of time on a single problem employee. "If you've got 15 employees, you might be spending 50 percent of your time on this one," says Rob Wilkerson, an Internal Revenue Service senior executive based in St. Louis. Terminations also are time-consuming for higher- level managers. Killion estimates she spent a total of two full weeks helping one of her subordinates remove a poor performer. The direct manager spent far more.

This is time that managers who have their own work on top of their supervisory duties can ill afford. "Most of us are already taxed," says John "Jay" Gowens, who heads the Army's Computational and Information Sciences Directorate. And after the employee departs, managers face the task of finding a replacement-assuming they're allowed to fill the spot.

'A Cancer in the Organization'

If firing someone is so time-consuming and unpleasant, why go through with it?

Because an employee whose bad behavior or attitude goes unchecked can have a disproportionate affect on the organization. "It tends to amplify in people's minds," says William L. Bransford, general counsel for the nonprofit Senior Executives Association. "You develop a practice of mediocrity at best," he says. Good workers resent seeing a colleague get away with putting in less than a full day's work-especially if they have to pick up the slack. Noting that a manager doesn't enforce expectations, some may let their own work slide, lose respect for the manager and feel less pride in their work group. "It's like a cancer in the organization," says Wilkerson.

Another reason: Steps leading up to removal-including counseling and, typically, a performance improvement plan-lead about 40 percent of poor performers to shape up, according to the Merit Systems Protection Board. "If that happens, everyone wins," says Timothy Dirks, a former Energy Department director of human resources who now serves as president and chief executive office of GRA Inc., an HR and management consulting firm in Silver Spring, Md.

Some poor performers are transformed by changing jobs within the agency-either moving into a new role that better matches their skills and personality, or going back to a prior position in which they did well. Those who don't improve and haven't been effective in previous roles may not belong in the civil service. "Some people just can't work in a bureaucracy," Killion says. "You don't do them or the government any favors by keeping them." While it is probably a rare occurrence, several managers report having terminated employees come back later to thank them; getting fired spurred them to find jobs where they could succeed.

MSPB and OPM both estimate that "poor performers" constitute just 3 percent to 4 percent of the federal workforce. It's unclear exactly what that term means, however. Is a poor performer someone who coasts by, not achieving much but also not causing harm? Or does the term refer only to the most egregious cases-those who bring an organization down with their bad attitudes or incompetence? In a 2000 MSPB survey, employees said 3.7 percent of their co-workers deserved to be fired, but reported an additional 10.6 percent were operating below reasonable expectations.

The case for removing members of the less harmful group is harder to make because their faults are less obvious, and there's not as much incentive to take difficult action against them because they do less harm. As a result, managers are more likely to let underachievers coast. "It's much more effort to deal with that kind of situation," Maas says. "There were people on my staff that I tolerated, and it cost the organization." Ultimately, he says, "It is generally not worth the effort."

There is no evidence to support the perception-especially popular among people unfamiliar with the inner workings of federal agencies-that less-than-stellar workers plague government more than the private sector. More relevant is a different issue: Government agencies lack the private sector's flexibility in shedding workers who no longer are really needed.

Gowens, who spent 25 years in the private sector before going to work for the Army, says federal regulations hamper his agency's ability to match employees' skills with fast-changing technology. "Let's suppose that you're making widgets in the commercial world and you want to build thingamajigs. I call in the widget group and say, 'It's been really nice. Pick up your severance check on the way out,' " Gowens says. "That's almost impossible for us to do."

As a result, he has some employees whose skills are obsolete-for example, computer programmers who specialize in the outdated computer language COBOL and haven't learned in-demand languages such as Java-and who won't go through training to keep pace with technology. They don't cause disruptions at work, but they also don't perform the tasks the agency needs most.

Gowens says he could, in theory, put retraining into their performance plans, counsel them and remove those who don't modernize. But that would be prohibitively time-consuming. Instead he assigns them work that requires less skill. "I'll create a testing protocol and have those people sit at their desks and perform a relatively boring job," he says. "I get something done, but I'm probably paying more for that task than I should."

There is a plus side to this problem, of course: The job security federal work offers is a powerful recruiting tool, especially alluring to some IT workers who were burned by the dot-com bust. "This idea of a job for life, though we don't really have a job for life, is a double-edged sword," Gowens says.

'A Doomsday Process'

If firing problem employees is unpleasant and time-consuming for supervisors, yet critical for an agency's success, top executives and personnel offices should do everything they can to support front-line managers, right? Unfortunately, that's not always how it works.

"When we ask managers 'Why don't you get rid of the poor performers?' " says Steve Nelson, MSPB's director of policy and evaluation, "a lot of them say that they didn't think they would be supported up the line by managers." A lack of support from above can take a subtle form, says SEA's Bransford. He remembers from his own tenure at the IRS what he calls a "deafening silence," which he occasionally encountered when he would ask his superiors for input. "I would try to get a sense of how people felt about an issue and nothing would come back," he says. "The signal that most federal managers get when they hear that is 'I better be careful.' "

Sometimes the message isn't so subtle. One former Interior Department public affairs official oversaw a woman who struggled with severe alcoholism. He sought advice from the personnel office, counseled her on her performance and tried to get her to seek treatment. "You could make [her] go one or two times, but you couldn't make [her] take the extra effort," he says. "This strung out over a year. Finally people said there has to be a life consequence before [she] will be jarred into action." The public affairs official began preparing a case for her removal. He was one signature away from finishing the process when a new boss arrived who wanted to give her a fresh start. "He wouldn't sign it," the official says. "Six months later, she died."

Another problem: Some agencies' personnel offices layer so many requirements on top of OPM regulations that documenting a case for removal becomes daunting. "Managers have cornered me at conferences to tell me about the employee they tried to remove, and the general counsel said they needed a box-load of information," says John M. Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Washington-based nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. General counsels want to make sure that if a case is appealed, they have enough proof to support the decision. Some might lose sight of the fact that setting a high bar deters managers from taking the action in the first place.

Even during the probationary period-which usually lasts one year and was designed to allow managers to easily remove employees who don't measure up-some agencies add procedures that treat the probationer like a full-fledged federal employee. A 2005 report by MSPB found that certain agencies require managers to put subpar probationary employees on performance improvement plans. Such plans were designed to give employees training and counseling before a formal action, yet are not required by law even for post-probation employees. Not surprisingly, MSPB found that managers often do not use the probationary period to weed out workers who aren't up to the job.

Why would senior executives and personnel offices make removing problem workers harder than it needs to be? Though agencies lose only a fraction of discrimination complaints, union grievances, whistleblower reprisal claims and appeals on the merits, the possibility of having to defend a termination looms as a powerful deterrent.

The appeals and complaint procedures serve an extremely important function-ensuring that federal personnel decisions are fair and do not target whistleblowers or minorities. But they have unfortunate side-effects. Jilted employees can make life difficult for agencies by appealing a removal. There is no process to weed out frivolous complaints, and workers often can appeal to multiple authorities.

Defending a termination is "a doomsday process," says William N. Rudman, a federal employment attorney and former deputy undersecretary of Defense. It is time-consuming, and discrimination and whistleblower complaints make for especially bad public relations for the agency and individual supervisors. "In effect, the manager is being put on trial," GRA's Dirks says. Because of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission backlogs, it can take years for innocent managers accused of discrimination to clear their names (or for wronged employees to get justice).

Both SEA's Bransford and MSPB's Nelson say they know of instances in which managers have been passed over for Presidential Rank Awards because of discrimination complaints. This guilty-until-proven-innocent approach punishes front-line managers who fulfill their responsibility to remove problem employees. "Managers often draw EEO complaints precisely because they're good managers," Rudman says.

The problem is exacerbated, Rudman says, when agencies settle with employees who probably would not win their cases before MSPB or the EEOC. "It's a short-term gratification issue," he says. Offering a settlement-which can be a reduction in the punishment or a monetary payment-makes the problem go away, but establishes a precedent that gives other workers an incentive to appeal.

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