Why Management Problems Are a Barrier to Pay Raises and Reform

Performance improvement starts with managers, but they need help.

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report titled “Human Capital: Update on Strategic Management Challenges for the 21st Century,” which the author also submitted as testimony at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing on civil service reform. In contrast to several past hearings, there was minimal tension and general agreement between, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, and ranking member, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. The statements of the four witnesses were supportive of the workforce.

But a core problem highlighted in both the report and at the hearing is the failure to manage federal employee performance effectively. That problem has been recognized repeatedly in GAO reports. A search for the words “employee performance” on GAO’s website on found 17,000-plus reports and testimonies discussing the problem.

It’s central to the reasons GAO has included human capital management on its high-risk list for years. It’s also the underlying reason why positive response scores on related Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey questions have been the lowest for multiple years. Perhaps most important, many of the performance problems might have been avoided with better management.

Now those performance problems are a barrier to salary increases and civil service reform. It’s a Catch-22. Congress unlikely will approve increases to close the pay gap as long as performance problems are in the headlines. But media reports and FEVS response data suggest the problems are deep-seated and will be difficult to resolve in the absence of reform. That makes performance management improvement key to a more competitive salary program.

Setting the Stage for Reform

A lot can and should be done to set the stage for reform. The management changes mandated by the 2010 GPRA Modernization Act need to be digested. Agencies should continue to develop performance metrics. Communicating performance data more extensively would also help. Goal setting that emphasizes continuous improvement would be valuable. That would contribute to a culture where everyone understands performance is a shared priority.

But the most important step is supporting managers and supervisors in developing the behaviors and skills to get the best performance out of their people. GAO again has repeatedly issued publications that discuss “managers and the need for improved performance.” A search on the phrase found 332 released in the past six months. One on point from February is “Improved Supervision and Better Use of Probationary Periods Are Needed to Address Substandard Employee Performance.”

The system or process used to manage employee performance has a lot in common with other management systems. It all depends on the managers using the system. That’s basic; it’s a tool for managers. Human resources usually has the lead in administering performance systems, but realistically HR has virtually nothing to do with the day-to-day management of performance.

When the process is seen as a success, it’s because of the way managers handle it; when it’s a failure, it’s generally because managers are not committed to making it a success. When leaders fail to make performance a priority their attitude cascades to lower levels. Unfortunately, the problems are pervasive at all levels, including the Senior Executive Service.

Preparing Managers to Manage

In her hearing statement, Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, supported reform and pay for performance. This comes from someone who “worked with managers under four separate pay systems,” including the failed National Security Personnel System. She made a number of recommendations, noting that “a shift in the culture of any organization cannot occur without an interactive, ongoing training process that brings together the managers responsible for implementing the personnel system and the employees they supervise. Implementation trumps design as the biggest factor in a system’s ultimate success or failure.” My 40-plus years of HR experience confirms she is correct.

Training is to be sure essential, but it has to be more than the routine steps in the performance system. Sessions on performance planning and goal setting are critical. A session on providing feedback and coaching should also be provided. In addition, there should be a session on handling the year-end discussion of an employee’s rating. The goal should be to develop effective behaviors and skills.

But training lessons are often forgotten or not used, if they are not encouraged and reinforced. Managers need to know their effectiveness will be important to their careers. To agree with the Niehaus recommendation, the best managers should be rewarded. Reducing the funds for bonus awards is counterproductive; the funds should be increased and used to reward managers. Employees should play a role in evaluating their supervisors.

Government does, however, need to invest in developing more credible performance systems. That should be done agency by agency. The frequently expressed concern about the “few bad apples” makes it essential that ratings reflect actual job responsibilities. That’s also important to reducing inflated ratings. Continued references to a governmentwide system make no sense. To ensure new systems are accepted and used, managers and employees at each agency should be involved in the planning.

Recent and projected retirements make this an ideal time to undertake a federal version of Google’s Project Oxygen to identify what successful managers do and to reconfigure the selection, training and evaluation practices to prepare the next generation of managers. There is broad agreement that reform is needed. It should start with executives and managers.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

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