FEDweek

Dealing with problem employees

Federal employees who perform unacceptably in their jobs or commit serious job-related misconduct are relatively rare, with various studies and analyses, as well as the results of pay for performance-based job evaluations, putting the number in the low single digits.

Yet even a relatively small amount of performance and conduct problems can have a disproportionately large and negative effect on an organization—the classic one bad apple spoiling the whole bushel.

Poor performers and employees whose conduct is problematic—especially if tolerated by management—can make coworkers resentful and less inclined to “go the extra mile.” Ignoring them sends a signal to other workers that they don’t have to follow standards either, and amounts to treating employees unequally—leaving the manager or supervisor potentially vulnerable to complaints on that ground.

In contrast, taking action improves the morale of other workers. In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, for example, three times as many employees who are in work groups that take steps to deal with poor performers rate their units as effective, versus those in groups that don’t address the problem.

Rarely does poor performance or a pattern of misconduct correct itself. Instead, constructive counseling—especially given early and regularly—can turn things around.
There is also a widespread view that federal managers and supervisors are reluctant to confront and resolve these problems. That view has a strong basis in reality: in those same surveys, only about three in ten federal workers agree that steps are taken to deal with poor performers in their workplaces.

The task of documenting a decision and seeing it through the potential legal challenges is seen as daunt¬ing, time-consuming, expensive—and often fruitless. Managers and supervisors often complain that when the legal papers start flying they are left to hang out to dry by top agency management that doesn’t want to spend the time and money needed to defend the action.

Indeed, many managers find themselves accused of discrimination, whistleblower retaliation or other prohibited practices after taking disciplinary action. Groundless as those allegations may be, and regardless of the outcome of the case, the manager can find that such a case is as damaging to his or her own career as to the disciplined employee’s.

Barriers to dealing with problem employees are based in organizational culture as well as in procedures. In one survey, for example, supervisors who reported difficulty in dealing with a poor performer cited organizational culture factors as a problem more often than they cited procedural factors. For example, 63 percent of supervisors cited a lack of confidence in the agency’s performance management process, and 60 percent cited a lack of support from higher-level management–more than cited concerns such as subjectivity of performance standards (31 percent) or a lack of training (35 per¬cent).

A long-term view is necessary. Dealing with a problem employee entails significant short term pain, which may include delivering bad news to an unreceptive or hostile employee; documenting and defending an adverse action; lost productivity; and the stress as¬sociated with affecting someone’s livelihood. So it’s particularly important that agency supervisors and leaders emphasize long-term considerations of morale and productivity when making decisions concerning problem employee. Otherwise, it is very tempting to ignore or “work around” the employee, at significant cost to organizational effectiveness.

Although it is common for poor performance and mis¬conduct to be interrelated, it is important to recognize the difference between the two. Misconduct is gener¬ally a failure to follow a workplace rule—such as tardi¬ness and absenteeism, insubordination, and falsifica¬tion. Poor performance, on the other hand, is the failure of an employee to do the job at an acceptable level. The acceptable level is usually, but not always, documented in written performance standards and is typically de¬fined in terms of quality, quantity, or timeliness.

The Civil Service Reform Act created separate procedures for adverse actions based on poor performance (“Chapter 43”) and adverse actions based on conduct (“Chapter 75”). Chapters 75 and 43 are alternative procedures for performance based actions, and Chapter 75 is the exclusive procedure for misconduct-based actions. The accompanying table outlines the most important differences between these two procedures.