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The Federal Coach

Deadwood: The myth of poor performers

Even if you're not a fan, you're probably familiar with the Discovery Channel's MythBusters, a series that uses science and special-effects to separate fact from fiction.

The government needs its own version of MythBusters around HR rules, particularly dealing with poor performers.

Let's examine the myths. No one in government gets fired because it is too difficult, and any supervisor crazy enough to remove someone will be sued. On the other hand, the private and nonprofit-sectors are filled with only high performers because poor performers are easily fired.

Sound familiar?

I've worked in all three sectors, and there's "deadwood" everywhere. Firing someone is never easy; no one wants to be the bad guy.

There is a difference in government -- most managers don't know the rules. Just like the MythBusters, I consulted an expert to find the truth. My colleague, John Palguta, spent 34 years working on federal human resource management issues in government. He can separate the truth from the urban legends.

In fact, supervisors fire between 8,000 and 10,000 federal employees every year because of poor performance or misconduct, according to government data. John noted that this is less than four percent of the total workforce and that proactive management can help many improve their performance.

But what about the small percentage who cannot or will not improve? If you're a federal government manager in charge of a chronic poor performer, here are some practical steps you can take.

Step one: Admit there's a problem. Too often supervisors assume that employees know their performance is unacceptable. More likely, these poor performers have been rated highly in the past and have no clue. As a starting point, you need to have that difficult conversation with your employee and let them know their performance is a real problem.

Step two: Call HR. If the conversation doesn't resolve the problem, consult your agency HR professionals to outline the performance issue and solicit advice around your next steps. You will need HR to process any termination, so engage them at the beginning to ensure that you're dotting all the "i's" and crossing all the "t's."

Step three: Diagnose the problems and establish clear expectations. Next, talk with your employee and identify the cause of the problem: Is it a lack of training? A bad attitude? Something that can be fixed? If the problems are personal, refer them to an Employee Assistance Program offering professional help. If the issues are work-related, establish a set of SMART goals -- specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goals -- for improving performance.

Step four: Document
. After you have established and documented a set of goals, record whether or not they were achieved. Create a file for the employee's work products. Provide coaching to help them improve and track the conversations through emails to the employee. This is the most time-consuming part of dealing with a poor performer but the most necessary: You cannot fire someone without the right documentation.

Step five: Take Action
. If you have spent a reasonable period of time trying to help an employee improve and you see little or no progress, contact HR again and take action. One move I don't recommend is transferring the poor-performing employee somewhere else. This is an all-too-frequent tactic that solves nothing and eventually comes home to roost when others realized you've passed along your deadwood to them. Firing someone should be the last resort, but when an employee is a consistent poor performer, rest assured, you can fire them.

The good news is that when managers take action -- even just counseling employees -- about half of the time employee performance improves to an acceptable level or even better.

I encourage you to share your ideas or experience dealing with poor performers in federal government by sending an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday, when I interview Scott Gould, deputy secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, or receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @thefedcoach.

By Tom Fox

 |  April 16, 2010; 3:03 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Manage up without kissing up | Next: Make a clear statement: 'We are listening'


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There are some poor performers that linger, but that's largely because they have many years behind them, and their supervisors are just waiting for them to retire.

It's rare to see younger poor performers stay at their posts. I have only seen a couple fired, but I have seen many discouraged by lack of promotion or not so subtle urgings to pursue other lines of work. Under 40 government workers are far easier to move along, and a supervisor is doing them a big favor by shifting their career path.

The problem comes when you have someone close to retirement, who has no desire for promotion, just waiting to retire. The supervisor doesn't want to fire him/her, because then the pension would be lost and their lives would be ruined. They are unlikely to find work that will feed them for the rest of their lives, and they've already put in 20+ years into this path. On the other side, it creates a heavy burden to prove that this person should go after years of acceptable ratings.

It's harder to clear out deadwood in government, but not impossible. As the Baby Boomers retire, they will be replaced with workers who have been better weeded out already. It takes patience, but it is happening.

Posted by: AxelDC | April 21, 2010 8:04 AM

"Let's examine the myths. No one in government gets fired because it is too difficult, and any supervisor crazy enough to remove someone will be sued."


Unfortunately, this is not as much of a myth as it is an exaggeration. I worked in the federal government for many years and watched as my boss tried, over the course of years that exceeded my time there, to fire an incompetent coworker.

This guys was *awful*, both personally and professionally. Yet, my department couldn't just fire him because, as you mention, they had to fastidiously document each act of malfeasance and incompetence. This took many months. Then the lawyers had to be consulted. Then more documentation. Then more lawyers. (Thankfully he was a while male otherwise the involvement of the lawyers probably would have lasted even longer and, as someone else mentioned, you risk the EEOC getting involved.)

Eventually, they didn't fire him, but gave him a chance to resign, with *severance*!

So, Tom, you're right in that it's not impossible to fire deadwood in the federal government. It's just unreasonably difficult.

Posted by: arlingtonresident | April 21, 2010 7:20 AM

White males automatically assume that they are never deadwood and that minorities are: Can you say Wall Street?

Posted by: TheTruthTeller | April 20, 2010 9:33 PM

As a career federal employee including many years as a manager, I would modify the steps outlined about as follows:

1. Identify the problem.

2. Contact HR.

3. Speak to the employee.

4. Receive the EEO complaint regarding your attempt to deal with the problem.

5. Suspend any action to deal with the problem while EEO complaint is being resolved.

6. Wait several years while the EEO investigation takes place and you defend your actions to lawyers and administrative judges.

7. Regret ever having attempted to deal with the failing employee.

8. Recognize the advantage in hiring only white males: They can't file EEO complaints.

Posted by: concernedcitizen3 | April 20, 2010 4:53 PM

Once, my company had a contract to provide support services to a government office at Patuxent River. One of our people was mapped to a GS-13 project manager. One of her tasks was to set up a demonstration for an equipment installation at a naval air station for a foreign government. She provided the date of the demonstration to the foreign government, but neglected to tell anyone on the U.S. side that the demonstration would need to be provided at that place on that date.

The foreign government arrived via a C-130 aircraft (many officials) on the appointed date and at the appointed place. Of course there was no one there to provide any information. "Calls were placed," etc. and our erstwhile government servant soon realized her "oversight." Later, the senior offical supervisor of the government person involved in this had to make a trip to Washington, D.C. to personally apologize to the ambassador.

This woman was widely known as incompetent before this incident. Her punishment?: her supervisors took away some of her responsiblities. So she continued to draw the same money for less work. Great gig!!

All of us who have run companies supporting the government can tell you stories like this. The idea that government people can get rid of incompetent personnel as easily as in the private sector is a MYTH. Anyone who has worked in or for the government knows this to be true.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | April 20, 2010 3:55 PM

For pity's sake.

This a perfect example of the synergistic idiocy that afflicts the union/government symbiosis.

"Step one: Admit there's a problem."
How insightful. Admit to whom? Yourself? The employee? HR? While we're at it, why not psychoanalyze the person who previously could not admit there was a "problem"?

"Step two: Call HR."
Translation: call the lawyers.

"Step three: Diagnose the problems and establish clear expectations."
Seems to me the problems were probably already "diagnosed" which caused Number 1.

Skip four. (basically says cover your but with a paper trail)

"Step five: Take Action"
I'm sorry, I thought 1-4 were actions.

This PC nuttiness is precisely why union-controlled state governments are spiraling into bankruptcy.

I've got a three-step plan.

1) Tell the employee they're not doing their job correctly and what to change.

2) Give them a second warning.

3) Fire them.

Posted by: spamsux1 | April 20, 2010 3:16 PM

Deadwood? I'd start a performance evaluation at the top.

Posted by: JAH3 | April 20, 2010 3:07 PM

What if the federal managers are the deadwood in the organization? Who removes them? In both federal agencies where I have worked, the managers were the ones who caused the most trouble and were the least competent in the entire organization. What's worse is that the other managers protect or ignore their behavior.

Posted by: fingal | April 20, 2010 2:17 PM

Interesting. It is easier to get a contractor employee fired- all you have to do is complain to the contractor.

However, for a real pain in the butt, try to get the contractor fired. If the contract company isn't doing it's job, it is impossible to get them terminated. First thing they do is go to their local congressman and whine and pass them some bucks. Then the congressman goes to the head of the agnecy to threaten to cut their budget if the contractor isn't re-instated, and the contractor is in for life.

For a real indication of deadwood, try accounting for how many contractors their are in the federal employment; how many people they have on their payrolls; how much those people are paid; and how many people are simply employed by the contractors in order to fool the government contract reps.

Anyone with a number of how many armed mercenaries we have in Iraq and Afghanistan? Anyone have any idea how much their are paid? See any accountability there?

Posted by: LeeH1 | April 20, 2010 12:47 PM

"Deadwood" is a term that refers to people
who are burdensome, superfluous, or useless. Deadwood is not necessarily the people in the bottom 10% of the performance range - they can still be doing everything required for the job. Which is really the whole point.

When you set the bar too low, anyone can meet the minimum requirements, and most people look like exceptional performers; even when they aren't satisfying your outside customers. The cure lies with management and HR raising the bar to weed out the lowest performers. Dumping the bottom 10% every year, regardless of whether they met expectations or not might solve the problem; but if they did everything you demanded of them, and still got canned, then who REALLY is the dishonest one?

Posted by: mhoust | April 20, 2010 12:34 PM

I watched a REALLY incompetent person get transferred to a better job after her gov manager tried to have her terminated. After 3 years following all the rules outlined above the employee sued and they gave her a different job for which she was not qualified. That is how it works in the federal workforce, the author is delusional.

Posted by: datdamwuf2 | April 20, 2010 10:50 AM

The author is missing the point. A lot of gov. workers may not be considered "deadwood" per se because they are performing well. But their duties may consist of moving this pile of paper from this drawer to that.

Posted by: thor2 | April 20, 2010 10:19 AM

"Let's examine the myths" and then we don't.
8-10,000 people let go. Thats less than 4%, true. But How much less than 4%. if 10,000 is 4% of the federal workforce then they only have 250,000 people. But there are 2 million people who work for the government. which makes .4% a more likely number. Even during this depression. Only .4% .
Could not initiially find a % for industry, but some quick facts HP let go 18,000 just this year, and many buisness models suggest getting rid of the lowest 5-10% every year to improve performance.
This is even with all the government enforced regulations on firing people. The myth holds true.

Posted by: jjeffery | April 20, 2010 9:47 AM

Years ago, a postal carrier who delivered to my office, started making very inappropriate remarks and suggestions to one of my employees. I told him in no uncertain terms that he had to stop it and that failure to do so would mean I would pursue the matter with his superiors- he laughed and told me to- well- do something inapproprite to myself. I pursued the matter after he came to our office with a firearm. I then learned that he had been doing the same to several other offices in the complex. We as a group went to authorities and lodged the necessary complaints. We were told the man would be "reassigned". We had to go to a federal hearing and swear under oath with him present, what he did, and how it frightened us. He was, after several months, fired. He started to drive slowly past our offices every day, pausing, and using his hands, mime the act of shooting a gun. We reported him to the police, who could never get there quickly enough to catch him in the act, or even in the parking lot. Then all of a sudden, he shows up, back in uniform, delivering our mail. He had been reinstated, and told us that short of killing someone, there was nothing we could do about it. The Post Office told our attorney that the jerk nad successfully completed some bizarre anger-management training, or something like that, that he was reinstated. I moved our office to the other side of town. This would not happen in a business environment.

Posted by: poppysue85 | April 20, 2010 9:39 AM

I want to know what this man's credentials are for giving us this advice. I want to see his education and experience. I want to see why you have us looking at this man's column. Why is he giving everyone in the government advice?

Posted by: eyemakeupneeded1 | April 20, 2010 9:05 AM

Maybe there's deadwood "everywhere", but NOWHERE is the deadwood in such high concentration as the Federal and State governments. And nowhere ELSE anywhere is such sensitivity devoted to getting rid of said deadwood than the Federal and State government. Private industry bounces their deadwood right out on their ear at the drop of a hat (or a beancounter's profit/loss report). 95% of government employees wouldn't last 5 minutes out on the market.

Posted by: JamesChristian | April 20, 2010 8:17 AM

Deadwood is an issue with a few government employees. But another are the lies from government managers during interviews. Managers frequently lie about what tasks an employee will take on because those managers can not find anyone to fill the position.

Posted by: mnbvcx | April 20, 2010 7:18 AM

In 25 years, half of them as a senior Federal manager, I fired 3 people. It was excruciatingly difficult. One of the three threatened my life, and that was not enough to fire the person. But eventually there was enough evidence to fire him. Another of the three was a criminal, and there was ample evidence of his lawbreaking. It took 3 years, fending off four lawsuits from him including a false "whistleblower" suit, and mammoth documentation to fire him. He was on the payroll for those 3 years.
Unfortunately, Federal employment carries too much entitlement and not enough accountability. I don't know how you change that in a society that is becoming addted to entitlement.

Posted by: SavingGrace | April 20, 2010 7:02 AM

The major difference between federal and private sector jobs is that the Federal supervisor needs a reason to fire someone that is reasonable. And I have seen people fired. And some have sued and stayed when they should have left. But that is life.

Some say the older workers are deadwood, but my experience has been that many younger workers will never work as hard as those who are older. Different attitudes are the reason, not age.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 20, 2010 5:06 AM

I read that obama has given the order to hire blacks only into the goverment...
in fact it's whites need not apply...
are the throwing out whites to put blacks in their place...

Posted by: DwightCollins | April 20, 2010 4:44 AM

This article is derogatory referring to feds as deadwood. Funny, I bet the author would not be too keen on firing white federal employees who are poor performers- of which there are plenty examples.
It's too bad that it's much harder to fire bad managers in the gov't who waste tax payers' dollars.

Posted by: QueenbeefromTakoma | April 20, 2010 12:23 AM

People don't get "fired" out of the Federal government, they get forced out, shunted out/reassigned or disqualified from their position.

Any of those are *way* easier than actually "firing" them. Besides, "firing" them would imply that they continued to fail to meet their mandatory minimums under the supervision of someone who doesn't want to be seen as a bad supervisor. It's hard to justify paying someone for the year or two that it takes to build up a case that will actually get them fired and not fault the supervisor as well for allowing them to continue to fail to do their job. It's much easier to either eliminate the position or change the qualifications for that position or just decrement the employees' "mandatory qualifications" to hold their own job. That can be done in a jiffy.

Posted by: dubya1938 | April 20, 2010 12:07 AM

This is an important discussion and I'm happy to have a chance to comment. I'm a retired fed (13 years). I supervised up to 15 people at one time, while I managed contractor staff.

I was successful in some ways, and unsuccessful in other ways. My success was due to the fact that I had had a long experiential career and academic credentials in management. So it was easy to identify tasks, keep track, give feedback and kudos to all the people on my staff. I never received this kind of supervision while I was in the federal government.

I was partly successful when I had an employee who was threatening me and others...the human resource department...had a series of sentences to say, and once I memorized them and had the courage to say them...things turned around. Not that performance improved, but the threats diminished.

I was very unsuccessful in other ways. The press of new tasks, changing priorities and constant urgency to do things faster undermined my ability to build trustful relationships. People who had never been really supervised before were reluctant to get involved...although miracles did occur on occasion. People with chronic illnesses, with years of leave to use were a very special problem.

All this to say that since the federal workforce is maligned so often anyway, calling people deadwood seems rude and lacking in empathy. I was constantly amazed at what we accomplished given the shortage of staff and the pressure of time. I used Appreciative Inquiry and found that even if we could only do mediocre work under the conditions we faced, we at least could appreciate the tremendous effort we made.

Thanks for the opportunity to share.

Posted by: dragon2 | April 19, 2010 7:03 PM

Think your math is a bit off; 10,000 employees fired is roughly one-half of one percent (0.5) of the overall federal workforce of 2 million or so. And the majority of those are dismissed for conduct or behavioral issues, not performance. As a practical matter, virtually no ones loses a federal job due to poor performance.

Posted by: rico18 | April 19, 2010 5:01 PM

Ah yes, will, and skill. Do you have the skill to identify the true deadwood, as opposed to the people who just lack training, your interest, and a fair deal? Do you have the will to do what needs to be done?
I could start with the performance standards. The ones my agency developed violated all the rules on how to develop them. There were too many requirements, and many of them were vaguely written and impossible to meet. One performance element held me, a GS-13 non-supervisory employee, responsible for the performance of GS-12 employees in other offices, working under the supervision of both GS-13 and GS-14 managers. How does that work?
Or talk about the employees? The one with the pager, so he could sneak out during the day and his buddies could call him if someone came looking for him. Or the employees whose work was performed by others, because they weren't capable of doing it themselves? The managers repeatedly charged with making sexual advances to their subordinates, tolerated by higher level managers until the union threatened to go to the press?
The employees who abused government credit cards by making personal purchases. The one that got drunk on site and crashed a rental car, but got a pass from his managers, and retained his employment. The one who lied about a criminal conviction on his application, most of which contained claims of employment that, once you knew him, had to have been fraudulent.
Then a new manager came in, and put several non-performers on "Performance Improvement Plans", which everyone assumed were designed (like the performance standards) to be unattainable, and thus the first step to termination. Two got the hint, and retired/resigned, and two were fired.
Does this happen in private industry? Well, yes, it does. Because people are people. Some will do as little as possible as long as they can. Managers can abuse their power regardless of whether they're in the public or private sector.
All of this talk about waste, fraud, and abuse is misleading. The real story is that for many on the right, "government" is synonymous with "waste, fraud, and abuse". How many Tea-partiers would exchange their Social Security benefits, such as they are, for the contents of a good old post-crash 401(k)?

Posted by: skoper1 | April 19, 2010 2:52 PM

The census bureau class action lawsuit is beginning to provide clear evidence that individuals across all government agencies are being impacted by adverse data, they have no knowledge of.

In hiring, rention and promotion decisions individuals are adversly impacted by data they are prohibited from being provided the opportunity to challange, correct and amend, in violation of law. Programs are managed by agency general counsels, and inspector generals. Most of the firms that inplement the identy mgt systems are same firms that do the audits, KPMG, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, E&Y and Deloitte.

All internal controls regulating human capital managment are being circumvented by illegal programs. When these accounting firms sign the audit reports stating that the agency/company is in compliance with federal state laws, they are lying through their teeth. It's called fraud, and DOJ is the biggest offender.

Posted by: OracleConsult | April 19, 2010 12:31 PM

There's "deadwood" in every workplace;
And throughout the entire human race
Not only the fittest survive--
Deadwood's kept alive
Even though it would be "no sweat" to replace.

Posted by: Gonzage1 | April 19, 2010 11:36 AM

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