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The Federal Coach

The right way to reward federal employees

This week's questions come from federal managers at the U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Please continue sharing your ideas and questions by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

How can I reward a high-performing employee without making other employees upset? -Federal manager (GS-14) at the U.S. Small Business Administration

It's important that you support and reward your high performers. But as a leader, you also need to consider team dynamics and the impact these rewards will have on others.

When deciding to reward your employees, consider these three variables: whether the criteria for the reward are clearly defined; whether the reward is for an individual or a team; and whether you want to publicize the reward.

First, if your decision for rewarding your high performer is unclear, other employees may feel slighted and overlooked. Make sure you clearly define to your team the criteria for which you make an award.

Second, determine if this is an individual or team award. If others can claim partial credit, you may want to consider recognizing the whole team. Even if your high performer is primarily responsible--and thus deserving of a bigger reward--others may deserve a reward as well.

Finally, consider whether the reward needs to be publicized. The conventional wisdom is to recognize your high performers publicly so you can demonstrate the behaviors, performance and results that are most valued to the team and the agency. However, this does not take your unique team dynamics into account. If you think that the reward is better delivered in private, then you should do so.

At the end of the day, you must stand by your high-performing employees. Without them, your team and your agency will not succeed.

What is the best course of action when a peer--who is a manager--does not manage her staff well? Her employees fail to show up for meetings on time and perform joint tasks that affect the work of my team. - Federal manager (GS-15) at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

You must talk with your colleague directly about her team's behavior and their effect on your team's performance. It's a difficult conversation to have, but here are a few steps to help you prepare:

• Approach the conversation with an open mind and a joint approach to problem-solving. It is possible that your colleague may be unaware of the situation. Start the dialogue by letting your colleague know about their team's behavior, how it's affecting your team's performance and that you need help to fix the situation.

• Do your homework and have a set of very specific examples of your colleague's behavior and its impact on your team. Quantitative measures are always better than qualitative, but both are necessary to make an effective case. Again, you don't want to approach the conversation in an accusatory tone, but your colleague will undoubtedly need some specific examples around which she can provide guidance and coaching.

• Prepare a joint plan of attack around communication with one another and the members of your teams so that feedback is delivered in real-time. This will ensure that everyone understands what success looks like and will prevent frustrations from building over time.

If your colleague is unwilling to work through the problem, approach your manager with a plan for resolving the issue. I suggest that your plan includes finding a mediator to help your teams engage in a healthy, productive conversation about working together more effectively. Whatever your plan, you'll need your manager's support to make it work. Good luck!

By Tom Fox

 |  October 7, 2010; 2:08 PM ET |  Category:  Ask the Federal Coach Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Hey mrich777:

I'm one of those fedbashers, and I was a member of Club Fed until last year. I left because I couldn't stand being "managed" by a bunch of egotistical, lazy, arrogant losers who spent the entire day surfing the internet. They stopped just long enough to send out an email here and there to nag the staff along. Taxpayer dollars are definitely being wasted - I saw it firsthand. You would like taxpayers to stay mum and keep paying, with no questions asked. That's the scam that the unions have been running for years.

Posted by: fingal | October 13, 2010 2:01 PM

If I were getting an award I think what I would enjoy most would be a day off with pay! I more than pull my weight, even going in when I have scheduled time off if the plant is short. I hit my guarenteed salary by PP16 (lots of OT by helping out when others chose to call in!). I'm already in my upper 50's and I am filling in for the 20 and 30 year olds who can't seem to make a commitment to work for, say, a month straight without taking a day off. Whew, a random day off with pay would be great! (They'd probably call and say someone called in, could I come in! LOL) My FLS once gave all the CSIs ball caps, which at the time seemed cheesy, but I really do enjoy wearing it now, even though I'm a "girl". When I look back now I really do appreciate whatever recognition I can get, and that was without having to TELL THEM during and IPPS what I do! That's a crock too, my supervisor should know what kind of a job I do, I shouldn't have to tell him!

Posted by: lefty53NE | October 12, 2010 7:05 AM

How to reward federal employees? Here's a thought: get rid of other, worthless employees. How fair is it, anyway, for some employees to do two or three or four times more work than other employees who draw the same paycheck?

I remember one lady who ran a real estate office from her desk at a federal agency. Her co-workers were hard at work all day, and she did just about nothing. Another lady I once worked with did 15 minutes of work in the morning, and 15 minutes of work in the afternoon. The rest of the time she was eating donuts or watching the clock. Another guy I remember sat in the hall all day, watching the world go by. He worked in the building somewhere, but nobody knew quite where. And then there was the woman who didn't come to work in the winter because of "seasonal affective disorder." For months at a time, she was nowhere to be seen, and yet she was presumably drawing a paycheck. And what about the guys at the SEC who spent all day downloading porn rather than working?

Posted by: John991 | October 10, 2010 5:09 PM

The response to the person about her team members showing up late and not performing reminds me of my experience with a lot of Federal managers. This comment was accepted uncritically as being valid. Is it?

Are the meetings being held at a convenient time- perhaps this is why they're always late? Is workload in the office balanced- perhaps the other team members are being run ragged and this person making the complaint can always show up on time because they're not doing very much?

Above all else, Federal managers need to look at BOTH sides of an issue before uncritcally accepting as valid the first person who happens to make a complaint about something.

Posted by: stillaliberal | October 10, 2010 4:36 AM

Speaking as a GS-7-9, I'd be far more interested in a reward system of some kind that allowed top performers career advancement and/or training opportunities, and I'd also like to see similar incentives applied more widely. A few dollars doesn't change the job, but meeting a target to qualify for cross-training or advancement would mean a lot more to people at my level. The gov't is losing a lot of retirees without making use of their institutional knowledge, and at least in my agency is failing to train current staff to move up. This is a mistake and I believe a costly one. The cash award system is as others who are knowledgeable describe, pretty much broken, and while it might have a temporary effect, you still have to pay taxes on that cash, and then it's gone. Cash awards in my agency are very small and awarded six months to a year after the nomination, rendering them doubly meaningless. Why not replace the system with awards of real long term value?
As always, it's such a pleasure to see the ignorant commenters who have no idea of what fed workers do, but will be absolutely furious if their benefit check is late or there's an error in their filing. Feel free to insult all the workers who read these pages, that's a good way to motivate people too.

Posted by: jody43jody | October 9, 2010 9:56 PM

These parasitic lazy pieces of non-work are ALREADY rewarded enough with their luxury pay and perks.

If you fired half of them the work production would still be the same.

Posted by: Smarg | October 9, 2010 6:58 PM

There are less federal employees now than in any year since 1967. If people want cuts in government, it's going to come out of money that's gone to contractors, not the federal workforce. The GOP "privatized" everything remember?? Because supposedly the private sector would do it better. That didn't get the results the GOP base wanted it sounds like...

txengr, clearly you're too dumb to do most complex government work. Yea, you can use this internet thing that was invented by the government, but only cause it's been made dirt simple for you.

Posted by: Nymous | October 9, 2010 5:56 PM

D.C. Health Fair — on
The Taxpayers' Dime

Senate staffers, who already enjoy some of the best health care in the nation, to take part in two-day health fair — complete with back massages, organic food tastings and screenings — and taxpayers are footing the bill

Posted by: corebanks1940 | October 9, 2010 12:20 PM

D.C. Health Fair — on
The Taxpayers' Dime

Senate staffers, who already enjoy some of the best health care in the nation, to take part in two-day health fair — complete with back massages, organic food tastings and screenings — and taxpayers are footing the bill

Posted by: corebanks1940 | October 9, 2010 12:06 PM

Tom: Another helpful article. Keep it up!!

Note to Fed Bashers:
Please come to the DC area and try to be a part of running the government or keep your peace. We welcome those into the ranks who actually want to improve services to the citizenry. Most federal managers would agree that there are people who don't deserve their job, much less their pay. They should be terminated. The ability to hide in a position and not contribute isn't a federal bureaucracy issue, it is a bureaucracy issue (ask any Fortune 50 middle manager). Bottom line, give us the appropriate tools and training to legally terminate employees, then back us up and we'll do it. But unless you are willing to come here and help us solve national problems (poverty, roads, tax processing, nuclear security, etc), then just keep voting and paying your taxes as your national contribution (provided you do that at all) and quit criticizing through a comment section. It's WEAK. ~~Stepping off soapbox now.

Posted by: mrich777 | October 9, 2010 7:04 AM

Reward hell!! All federal employees should have their pay cut by 25%. It is way to high. Most are incompetent. At least 20% should be laid off.

Posted by: txengr | October 9, 2010 12:15 AM

High performers are everyone's focus but to be honest in all my years as a supervisor I have noticed:
1. the 5 percent of the high performers either burn out or move on,
2. the 5 percent of the worst performers are pawned off rather than fired. Thanks to the union where there is never enough volumes of paperwork, and
3. the other 90 percent keep their heads down, come in and do the job day in and day out. These are the folks I focus on as I cannot afford to have them disconnect from the job as apparently 40 to 60 percent are - depending upon the reports you receive. They do not flash, they do not burn, they keep the gears rolling.

Posted by: zendrell | October 8, 2010 6:45 PM

I believe most federal employees would most appreciate a safe and reasonable workplace. So many federal employees are trying to do their jobs in a war zone right now, with corrupted managers and so much fraud, waste and abuse going on around them, it is a very perilous place to work, period.

Those ethical employees who are trying to do their jobs lawfully are often the targets of harassment and retribution from their managers and higer ups, and even questioning the bad, unethical or illegal actions of managers or others in your agency can bring down the wrath of the whole system on your head, along with being treated like a whistleblower. (Those federal laws protecting whistleblowers are STILL not passed and functioning properly yet!)

Federal employees want to be able to be respected for their hard work, and their service to our country. They also want to be able to continue to look in the mirror and respect themselves for standing up to wrongdoing when they encounter it, be it within their own agency, or within corporate interests they must work with in their federal capacity, or provide oversight of in their federal capacity.

Getting all of that straightened out would be the biggest reward federal workers could be granted right now.

Having said that, I must comment that from what I have learned over the years, the cash award system is broken, as it is left up to the managers when their subordinates do very fine work and bring either honor or cost savings to their office, how much of the cash award will be passed along to the deserving employee for their great work, and how much will be kept by regional office manager.

Posted by: gfs2010 | October 8, 2010 3:57 PM

REWARD THEM? What a joke. The bottom 90% of Federal workers are completely without possibility of private employment. They're lucky just to BE there gathering salary, benefits and retirement at the trough with the resp of the Federal piggies. Once we get past the military, courts and Federal law enforcement, you could tap every other Federal worker on the shoulder and fire them on the spot. The rest would take up the slack with no worries, believe me. It's this tens of millions of piggies feeding at the Federal trough that is ruining our economy, running up our deficits and erasing the future for our children while they write volumes of regulation to stymie business and individuals from making a living. Like any OTHER entity that hires and fires, the Federal government should sweep out the dead wood and actually WORK the others left behind to the tune of an honest 60 hour workweek--JUST like the private sector. Pigs and Hawgs, that's Federal drones for ya.

Posted by: JamesChristian | October 8, 2010 3:17 PM

The most important thing is to be able to evaluate properly the tasks a boss want to reward an or many employees. Many bosses know less about them than most employees.

Posted by: rolandberger | October 8, 2010 10:16 AM

My experience, both military and civilian, is that the military "praise in public" model is quite perilous in the civilian environment. While respecting the quality comments of other posters, I have seen first hand in several organizations many controversies, jealousies and human frailties resulting from achievement or spot awards made public. Recognition is essential - to the point we should err to the side of over-recognition - but human factors dictate to me that individual awards be made privately.

Posted by: 4steve | October 8, 2010 10:07 AM

"Rewarding employees" is a subject that is more delicate than the writer suggests. Take it from a retired federal manager, there is no way to avoid claims on the part of some that others are being favored or singled out for "special consideration" or allegations that the recipient was the boss' favorite.

Rewarding everyone in a mass coverage has its pitfalls in that the non-performers ride the wave of the performers and reap unjust rewards. The selective use of rewards can motivate some to step up and do more, but those who are not previously disposed to making the larger effort are less likely to change their personality and assume more responsibility or seek out greater difficulty in task assignment.

Posted by: ronjeske | October 8, 2010 9:53 AM

Any award you cannot publicize should be carefully reviewed to ensure it is legitimate. You do not need to publicize the amount of the reward, but one of the purposes of rewards for performance is to motivate other employees, so the fact of the award and the reasons for making it should be publicized to provide this motivation for other employees. Publicizing the award also avoids the rumors that will follow no matter how hard you try to ensure secrecy of an award. Secret awards look like you are hiding something. So make sure it is merited and publicize the reason. This is the same logic that applies to the award of military medals: when they are awarded, the citation is read to all hands.

Posted by: kenmorgan | October 8, 2010 9:28 AM

There are few monetary benefits available for high performers, but in the Federal culture I suggest relying most on career development opportunities to reward those employees who demonstrate competence,energy,focus,constuctive relationship skills, and trustworthiness. Monetary incentives - "push tools" - work best in private sector environments where financial metrics dominate. In public sector organizations, where a wider range of often less measureable metrics apply, "pull tool" factors such as career advancement, shared visions and teamwork tend to motivate. Reference: The First 90 Days in Government, Harvard Business School Press. Daly and Watkins.

Posted by: peterhdaly | October 8, 2010 9:22 AM

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