Pay for Performance: Its Time Has Come
Smart Cities: Beyond the Buzz
Future of the Army
How Government Can Fire Its Bad Employees

Managers hold most of the cards. Don't be afraid to play them.

To fire a government employee, all you need is the will and the skill. This may sound simplistic given all the protections granted to civil servants and the complexities of federal human resources case law, but it’s true.          

What does it mean to have the will? It means having the strength to remove a poor employee when it is the right thing to do. It means being willing to deal with an employee who exercises his right to grieve, appeal or file a complaint against you, not taking the easy way out by reassigning him or caving in to his demands. It also means withstanding the political pressure that often comes from headquarters, the union, a member of Congress or the media. Ultimately, it means standing up for what you believe in when you feel that removing the employee is the right thing to do.

Having the skill means as a management official you are smart enough to surround yourself with the right advisers and ask the right questions. It means understanding that you hold most of the cards, not the employee, and you are prepared to play them in an appropriate fashion. If you are a human resources management official and/or an attorney adviser, it means explaining to managers how they can deal with a problem employee, rather than telling them why they cannot.               

It all comes down to your mind-set. If you believe you can fire a poor employee and you have the will and skill, then you can. On the other hand, if you buy into the stereotype that it is just too difficult to fire someone, then you won’t.

Six conditions must exist before you can fire a bad employee.

1. Everyone in management must recognize that tolerating poor employees is a bad thing.

I once took the helm of an organization where the previous leader believed that firing a government employee was tantamount to capital punishment. The net result was that almost everyone believed there was no accountability in the organization, the poor employees felt they had carte blanche, the good employees resented that the poor employees were allowed to skate by without any real consequences and the organization floundered.

A recent McKinsey study found that negative employee interactions have five times the impact on an organization that positive employee interactions do. The report suggests organizations must eliminate negative behavior, if they want to promote excellence. The key point: Do not tolerate bad employees. They damage morale, performance, employee retention and your reputation. If they don’t change their behavior or performance, then they need to go.

2. Management officials must be willing to terminate or support the termination of a bad employee, if appropriate.

Many personnel actions in government fail because of an inconsistent approach to accountability. You may have a first-line supervisor who is willing to deal with a bad employee but is constantly discouraged from taking action by his boss. Or both of them might be on the same page, but are then undermined by a deciding official who is unwilling to support a removal action. Or you may have a management team that is willing to do the right thing, but they may be discouraged from taking action by an HR official or the organization’s attorneys. Unless everyone is on the same page and willing to work together to fire a bad apple when appropriate, then at some point in the process, things will fall apart.               

3. Managers must have enough training in employee and labor relations (if unions are involved) so they understand the system and can take the proper action.

HR is a complicated field that requires a lot of training and experience. You wouldn’t expect line managers to be experts in this field any more than you would expect HR specialists to be experts in accounting or medicine. But when dealing with HR issues that are complex and even novel, line managers often have to make snap decisions that are out of their area of expertise and can have a long-term impact on their ability to take action.               

That is why they need to be well-trained in employee and labor relations. Not because they need to become experts, but because they should know how to deal with issues that crop up, have a good understanding of the system within which they operate, and be able ask the right questions

4. Management officials must have one or more skilled advisers (human resources management officials and/or attorneys) who can guide them throughout the process.

Advisers who are skilled in personnel issues are worth their weight in gold. Management officials who want to fire a bad employee need advice and support in the same way we all do when we are dealing with a complex and emotional issue.               

Unfortunately, the HR expertise in government these days is relatively thin, which means it is not easy to find good advice. If that is the case in your organization, make a concerted effort to recruit one or more HR experts, if you can find them. Alternatively, consider turning to former employees who are HR experts and have them provide guidance and, more importantly, help you build the requisite expertise among your HR and legal staff.          

5. Everyone needs to understand and properly apply the concept of progressive discipline.

Perhaps the single biggest mistake government managers make when dealing with bad employees is to misapply the concept of progressive discipline. This is an approach to discipline in which the penalties become more severe with repeat occurrences. The principle behind progressive discipline is to use the least severe action necessary to correct the inappropriate behavior.               

Far too often, line managers use the following approach to correct a poor employee: Hold several counseling sessions, and then give the employee one or more letters detailing expectations, followed by an admonishment, reprimand, short suspension, long suspension and then finally removal.               

This approach seems to make sense on the surface but it takes months, if not years, to pull off, and rest assured the employee will use all the protections at his disposal to fight you every step of the way. Don’t be surprised if you receive multiple grievances and Equal Employment Opportunity complaints in response to the actions. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the employee to fall on the job and ask for 45 days’ continuation of pay — and perhaps become a union official as well. The strategy is to bog you down in so many grievances, complaints and other actions that you surrender rather than continue to fight.               

Ask yourself this question: Will taking a series of progressive but relatively weak actions really change the employee’s behavior? Probably not. Unless the employee feels his job is truly on the line, he will not take you seriously. That is why you must take a strong action. It will bring the situation to a head much more quickly, place you in a position of strength rather than weakness and prevent the employee from using the system to grind you down.

6. Fear should be eliminated from the process.

Another reason government officials don’t fire bad employees is fear — fear because they don’t understand the process or they are afraid to lose a case, fear of all the work involved in a removal and fear of being sued. If you really understand the process, know the statistics and understand your rights, you will recognize that the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. Don’t make the common mistake of giving up before you start because you are afraid that some complication may occur down the road.               

Management officials have far more resources than employees do and prevail most of the time before third parties. If you don’t put the upfront work into dealing with a problem employee, the impact will only metastasize and spread deeper into your organization. As for being sued, recognize that if you are operating within the scope of your job you have nothing to worry about. If you still have concerns, however, you can always purchase professional liability insurance.

Stewart Liff is a fellow with The Performance Institute, specializing in human resources management, visual performance management and team development. He is the author of multiple books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. 

(Image via Imilian/