The Perils of Poor Performance

hen 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. 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.

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:

  • Expect excellence.
  • Establish accountability.
  • Take timely action.

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

  • The Treasury Department's Rapid Response Team consists of high-level headquarters and legal officials who provide advice and assemble the resources supervisors need to explore their options for dealing with problem employees.
  • The Education Department's Informal Dispute Resolution Center provides mediation services at the informal stages of agency employee-management disputes and has worked on hundreds of cases since 1996.
  • The U.S. Navy's Performance Development Resources process involves a pool of people, including union representatives, who provide support for employees and managers to help diagnose problems and identify solutions such as training, new work aids or reassignment.
  • NASA mandates coaching sessions for managers on techniques for conducting successful performance meetings.
  • OPM's CD-ROM, "Addressing and Resolving Performance Problems," presents dramatizations of performance cases with accompanying guidance. OPM has also developed an online Performance Management Clearinghouse to help agencies share information about their performance management programs, processes and practices.

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