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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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