Can the Slackers! What Does Your Agency Do About Deadwood?

Home Forums Leadership and Management Can the Slackers! What Does Your Agency Do About Deadwood?

This topic contains 21 replies, has 15 voices, and was last updated by  Terrence Hill 9 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #163289

    Allison Primack

    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 [email protected] (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.

  • #163331

    Terrence Hill

    (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.

  • #163329

    Mark Leheney

    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 http://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

  • #163327

    Jeff S

    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.

  • #163325

    Siberia? 🙂

  • #163323

    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?

  • #163321

    Joe Flood

    Get promoted? LOL.

  • #163319

    Kevin Lanahan

    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?

  • #163317

    Stephen Peteritas

    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.

  • #163315

    Peter Sperry

    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.

  • #163313

    Corey McCarren

    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

  • #163311

    Tim Howell

    My Answer: We usually put them on performance improvements plans and if they do not start to do better, they are let go. I have rarely seen demotions or promotions for unproductive people unless they had the organization convinced that they were doing more work than they actually were. Usually, they are given some type of severance pay and given the opportunity to quit. Some of them just hang around though, especially if they are senior staff in the organization, sad but true. It is hard to fire someone that has supposedly been preforming good enough to keep at the organization for 20 years.

    My Rant: Unfortunately, productivity is loosely defined in many local governments. The organizational duties are so wide that the person at top can only know a fraction of what is really going on in an organization. If you get one incompetent manager or director they can make it seem like their department is doing a lot when they are actually doing a lot of nothing. We had a lady at a previous place that I worked that stayed at the office until 10:00pm most nights and everyone stood behind her saying she needed additional staff, etc… She ended up leaving and was replaced with someone who only worked part-time. The part-time person ended up even taking on additional duties, ha.

  • #163309

    Corey McCarren

    Great anecdote. Productivity can be difficult to determine, especially if you don’t know anything about what the person is doing (not your area of expertise). If I ran a science company I’d never know if the researchers were taking too long on a project or not.

  • #163307

    Terrence Hill

    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.”

  • #163305

    Gabe Gabrielsen

    When you are a young manager in any organization you see “deadwood” mingled in with the staff. However with a little experience and wisdom you quickly learn there are no “deadwood” employees – only “deadwood” managers. Employees cannot be become “deadwood” without management’s permission.

    Management has the responsibility to document non-performance in any employee and then initiate corrective actions which may include termination. If you see a lousy emloyee don’t blame that individual – its not their fault. Its their manager’s fault for letting them become like that.

    Feel free to quote me.

    Gabe Gabrielsen

  • #163303

    Tim Howell

    I agree with you that “deadwood” employees are still in most organizations because of bad managers but… I still lay some of the blame on the employee. I have seen some bad managers in my short time but not being productive is still a choice. Unless your manager locks you in a closet with no access to a computer and outside communication, there is always something to do. Not saying that these employees would be working towards the goals of the organization but they would at least be working. If you are going to pay me and not give me anything to do, I am going to study, take classes, etc… so I can learn some new skills and get out of there.

    Sorry, just got through reading QBQ again so personal responsability is a hot topic for me, ha. I do agree with you though, the manager needs to get them out of there if they are not performing. It is harder in government but it can be done. Who knows, they may actually start performing when you set clear expectations and goals 😉

  • #163301

    Kanika Tolver

    Allow the Union to defend them.

  • #163299

    David B. Grinberg

    As you may know, Allison, “canning” career Feds, to paraphrase your language, is usually akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Yes, it can be done, albeit rarely, but it’s a super slow step by step process that is — among other things — laborious, frustrating and time consuming. It’s certainly a lot easier said than done compared to the private sector. That is, unless an act is committed that is so unlawful and egregious that it warrants immediate termination (a felony or misdemeanor crime should do it). Absent that, the short answers are: 1) you and your team pick up the slack, 2) transfer the slacker to another office, via detail or otherwise, 3) compile mountains of paperwork via “documentation” to satisfy all the bureaucratic rules, regs and red tape; and 4) it always helps to closely coordinate with your colleagues in HR, OIG and/or Legal Counsel — as needed and appropriate. Of course, the process may be expedited if the employee is “career conditional” or new to the job (first three months or year).


  • #163297

    Henry Brown

    In most organizations, that I have been associated with, it appeared to me that supervisors felt that the easiest solution to this problem was to look the other way and hopefully it would go away. In an other organization, the supervisor was held responsible for the performance of the people assignned to them, I believe in MOST cases this resulted in correctly identifying the “deadwood”. The true deadwood were soon gone, although not as soon as I would have liked, because of the effort required by the “system” to remove the true slackers, because it was in the best interest of the supervisor …

    For those who appeared to be slackers/deadwood but either were not or had valid reasons for appearing that way some effort was made by the supervisor/system to either correct the problem or to communicate to the group, in a way that encouraged productivity by all, the reason for the apparent non-productivity of one team member.

    “quote approved”

  • #163295

    Pamela Holt

    Don’t know about the staff, but the attorneys are allowed to do what they want. They are put in positions where they can do the least harm. No one wants the extra work, and no one wants a lawsuit.

  • #163293

    Jeff S

    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

  • #163291

    Anonymous from email:

    “How well does management deal with those staff members? Not at all. Why? In a nutshell, the union. My manager has had discussions with me about the problem staff in my department. When one person was reprimanded about talking excessively on the phone, he got the union involved and the matter was dropped – and he continues his chatting. Managers don’t want the hassle of dealing with the union, so they either ignore bad behavior or institute stringent rules on everyone to make it look like no one is being singled out. As my manager put it (and this is a direct quote): “I’m just waiting for them to retire. What else can I do?”

    Other stories I’ve heard from other departments: a woman who painted her toenails and watched TV in her cube; another who surfed the Internet all day; another who showed up inebriated for work every day and it took years (because of the union) to remove him.

    Believe it or not, I am not anti-union. In dangerous jobs, minimum wage jobs, or jobs that require long hours, I fully support unions. But government workers? It’s a joke.”

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