GovLoop - Knowledge Network for Government

Each week, GovLoop partners with the Washington Post to host a question of the week. This week, we're interested in learning more about unproductive employees, and how your agency deals with them.

Most workplaces have employees who are productive and responsible... but often there are also a few people who are just floating by. Instead of pulling their weight, they create deadweight.


How well does your management deal with those staff members?


If you were a manager what would you do?

Feel free to share your responses publicly below, by email to (your response will remain anonymous) or over on the Post.


By the way, if you are open to us including your quote in a write-up for the Post, please say "quote approved" after your comment.

Tags: fedbuzz, federal buzz, human resources, washington post

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(This is a touchy subject, so don't quote me) - This has been a major issue that I have observed in virtually all of my Federal agencies and is a source of poor scores every year for the performance management questions on the Employee Viewpoint Survey.  The root of the problem is our inadequate performance management system (still just an annual fill-in-the-blanks form), inadequate supervision, and a risk-averse culture that tolerates mediocrity rather than rooting it out.  There is no simple fix (we've tried changing the form or number of levels to no avail), but this is certainly an albatross around the necks of managers that will not go away until we make a concerted effort to change the culture of mediocrity.

Terry - when you say "system" I assume you mean technology. But I'm wondering if the real system that is in need of fixing is the organizational systems that do not really reward top performance and do nothing substantial about non-performers...might be easy for management to point to tech...vs. look in the mirror, eh?

When I refer to systems, it's the people, rules, processes, and techniques that are used.  There are great systems like Rypple and Work Simple that can be used to develop "social goals" and provide realtime feedback, but I also think that the wrong person is evaluating performance (supervisor) and it is done too infrequently (once or twice a year) and we aren't measuring results and lastly there are very few incentives or disincentives for performance.  We need a complete overhaul of the "system."

Management Concepts did a webinar on this topic and we had to purchase additional "seats" because the interest was so large. Then, the discussion thread on it on www.govsupervisor in the words of one poster "just keeps on going!"

It is a perennial issue, one that can be emotional, and one that is an unintended consequence of many rules and regulations that have the good intention of preventing arbitrary action by supervisors and managers. It is supposed to be a rigorous process to remove a non-performing employee.

Another factor is that unlike the private sector, the federal government is not going to go out of business. It might get downsized a lot, and that could affect the workforce, but the essential dynamic is different from the private sector. There is no profit signal to rationalize operations or performance.

Finally, an interesting point is that while many people are quick to make judgments about ostensibly poor performers, in fact when you look at all the things that can lead to this (poor systems, perverse incentives, being punished for doing the right thing, politics, etc.) the picture can get more complicated than it would at first seem to be.

On a personal note, I will say I do not believe human beings are wired to show up and stink the place up, doing poor work, etc. Most people like to do rewarding, challenging and interesting work, and they feel good when they have accomplished something meaningful. A huge workplace issue is: What has happened when this natural sense of accomplishment got lost somewhere along the way?


-- Mark Leheney


My agency puts them in an office as far away as possible.  Gives the employee next to nothing to do apparently hoping they will quit.  I have seen it many times and sooner or later they do quit or get promoted. 


Siberia?  :-)

Get promoted? LOL.

Hahahahahaha I thought the same thing, Joe. Care to elaborate, Jeff?

Andy - Reminds me of in high school when I once (okay, maybe more than once) messed around in math class and my teacher sent me to "Geneva" which meant facing the wall in the corner lol

Joe/Corey I have seen GS-13 employees be sent to Siberia and they have been promoted to other agencies as 14's.  I have heard back in the 80's of a group of young inspectors who attempted to circumvent some regs.  They were all promoted to Supervisor and now have retired although their effect on the Program is still felt in crazy ways. 

Personally, I had a supervisor when I moved to DC who did not like my ideas usually because I refuse to be a "yes" man on wasteful projects.  I was banished down the hall to another division.  The happy part is my new boss is not a micro manager with a chip on his shoulder.  He listens to everyones ideas and provides valuable feedback. Its a win win for me

There was a recent post about "sleeper" employees that is relevant here. A lot of these employees are just waiting for an opportunity.

Not every "underperformer" is a slacker. Take a bright, highly motivated person with a passion for an agency's mission and give them a job. Then bury them under piles of red tape, creaky bureaucracy and a compensation system that doesn't reward innovation and initiative.

Make sure there's no career path other than to go into management, and don't make any effort to find out why they under-perform (family pressure? changing interests? complete lack of fun in the workplace?)

Once you kill the employee's drive to get anything done, wonder why they don't perform better.

Sure, there are a few slackers and deadwood in every workplace. And most of them need to move on. But are we really in such a disposable society that we want to throw out employees rather than renew them?

First off I think every person is different so there's no cookie cutter solution to the problem. I know in my life experience there is straight dead weight and then there people who appear to be slackers but really aren't, they just aren't being challenged or are extremely creative people that are dreamers not doers. There is nothing wrong with dreamers but for the most part they will always be viewed as slackers from people who don't see the vision but in the end their creativity and outside the box thinking is essential to the organizations success. I'm not sure there is a true solution for these faux slackers but the best bet is for the leadership of the organization to be completely transparent about who does what and what each person's strengths and weaknesses are and how they are dependent on each other for overall success. 

As far as the actual dead weight I am a huge fan of it being handled in publicly. In today's workplace feelings are often spared and that really doesn't do anyone favors and doesn't allow people to learn from the mistakes of others before making them themselves. I know that's a lawsuit waiting to happen but none-the-less.  

Sometimes you have to trust supervisors, managers and executives to make the best choices regarding who is and isn't deadwood.  There is a story that while Henry Ford was escorting some VIPs through his plant, one of them noticed an office worker napping with his feet on the desk and asked how someone like Ford (who was known as a hard boss) tolerated that kind of slacking off.  Ford replied that the last time that worker woke from a nap and took his feet off the desk was to bring him the design specs for what became the Model A.  We all think we know who is or is not deadwood; but often working hard is not the same as producing value.


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