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Know When To Fold ‘Em, Know When To Walk Away

“You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em and know when to walk away.” Kenny Roggers wasn’t just talking about love in his 1980 classic song “The Gambler” — he was also talking about poor performers.

Poor performers can bring down an organization, cripple employee morale and thwart innovation. And all too often poor performers in government are like glue – they stick around. More trouble is that a recent survey from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Viewpoint found poor performers continue to plague government.

Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that though the results of the Federal Viewpoint Survey were not surprising, they’re still troubling.

The survey revealed that only 26% of employees believe agencies are taking steps to deal with poor performers who cannot or will not improve. “The current process for dealing with poor performance is fundamentally flawed,” said Fox. “It has been around for decades and there have been very few updates to that system. Based on that Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, employees are begging for change.”

Every year between 8,000-10,000 federal employees are involuntarily separated (fired) from federal service because of performance or conduct issues.

“Knowing you have a problem is the first step. As a supervisor, you really need to talk with your employee about the fact that their performance is unacceptable,” advised Fox. “Oftentimes supervisors assume their employees know they are not performing well, but more likely the employee has probably been rated highly in the past.”

One way to get your poor performers back on track is to set strong performance metrics. “You need to make the goals as specific, measurable and attainable as possible. If you set those metrics, then they know what needs to happen in order for them to progress,” said Fox. “I would set a deadline. Then if you get to a point where there hasn’t been improvement, it doesn’t have to be a nasty experience. You can be and say ‘We’re not making the progress I would a hoped, and I think there’s a better opportunity out there for you.’”

However, metrics mean more paperwork and follow-up. “There are horror stories about the amount of documentation that needs to be produced, but it’s also the same sort a documentation that a supervisor should be producing on a regular basis anyways,” said Fox.

“I’ve seen both in the data but also just in practical experience, working in agencies the decline in morale that comes from having someone who is not performing up to expectations,” said Fox. “When you can get that person to move on, it not only allows you to invest resources in high performers, but it raises the performance of everyone else who seems far less concerned and are skating by.”

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Profile Photo Mark Hammer

The current President of the Treasury Board, in Canada, has expressed concerns that the rate of dismissal within the Canadian federal public service is conspicuously low, compared to the private sector. He has also publicly stated that he doesn’t believe that all federal hires are necessarily keepers. As a guy who has been reading thousands of managers’ complaints about the federal staffing system, I can tell you that, since we started surveying in 2000, the #1 complaint from managers has been that staffing takes too long, and is too complicated. And, as a long-time member of the International Personnel Assessment Council forum – whose focus is development and use of assessment tools in the public sector, I can tell you that there is no end to the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth amongst testing professionals, when it comes to persuading hiring managers to use professionally developed tools, rely on them, and use them wisely.

Why place these points beside each other?

Because the “quality-control” in private sector hiring is often achieved by post-hire termination, and frequently NOT at the front end at the point of intake. A hire can result from as little as a quick conversation at a little league game. And hires can be made flippantly because they occur in an at-will employment context. That’s why their dismissal rate is so much higher than ours.

In contrast, public-service staffing presumes that all quality control takes place at the front end; at the point of hire. The complex procedures involved in hiring are intended to make sure that only the “keepers” end up being hired. And once they’re in, they’re in. Because we place all our chips on the assessment and selection process, we have few, if any, means for “correcting” bad hires. The private sector are the doctors that can simply bury their mistakes, and we’re the poor civil engineers who have to live with ours (to borrow a rather unkind aphorism from that latter group).

Does this necessitate the adoption of new means to terminate bad hires in the public sector more efficiently, even at the possible forfeiture of employee rights?

Well, let’s consider some other factors first.

1) Knowing what to hire for is hard. A lot of job descriptions and ads leave one thinking “What in heaven’s name do they want?”. And these days, you’re often not simply hiring someone to make widgets all day long, because public-sector organizations are constantly shape-shifting, such that one hires for the future, for a changing mandate and budget, for succession-planning needs, and so on. So if a hiring manager lacks a firm grasp of what the job requires, and the corresponding ability to either identify themselves, or assist a test consultant, in narrowing down appropriate assessment tools, it is understandable. Sometimes, you WILL hire the wrong person.

2) Managing performance is fundamentally a question of etiquette between adults. How DO you impose your will, in a clear and compelling manner, on another adult? How do you tell them they need to change their behaviour without diminishing their dignity as a human being, without undermining their willingness to be a member of the same team as you the following day? A great many managers will likely avoid the task, because they (probably quite accurately) don’t feel themselves skilled at it; the same way people avoid talking to recently-divorced or widowed or cancer-diagnosed friends – because they don’t know what to say. The employee, who may have been a great hire at first, festers and stagnates, until it reaches a point where you just want to get them out of your unit so you don’t have to deal with them any more.

3) Management is often unclear in what they want subordinates to do. I’ve received plenty of requests that are 3rd and 4th-hand accountings of what someone much higher up wanted, and the requests are as vague as they get. The original request may have been a solid one, and terrific match for my skills, but by the time it gets to me, I can’t tell what they want, and can’t give my best effort. And of course, you can never meet and discuss the request with the bigwig. That’s no criticism of them, as people, but simply a reflection of “the system” and how things work in big organizations.

4) Once you’ve disengaged an employee, it’s hard to bring their enthusiasm back. I’ve run into plenty of folks – people whose competence I admire deeply – whose zeal for the task at hand has been flat out broken, and from that point on its just all pensionable time. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” becomes their motto. Quality of work is secondary to being aware of how many sick days, and vacation days you have, and how many months until retirement.

So, there are plenty of ways that hiring managers can make a bad hire, and plenty of ways they can meticulously create a poor performer. I think it behooves us to deal with those things first, before resorting to turfing people.

That said, I will reiterate my earlier point that we don’t have any sort of integrated approach to staffing that blends quality and utility of assessment at the point of intake, with realistic, accurate, and fair means for termination (or at least reassignment). If people seek public-service work under the assumption that it will be secure employment, anything that undermines that belief (like fast and loose termination) will destroy that employer brand, and you don’t really want that. If the brand is articulated to include a fair and through performance management system, and assurances that one will nearly always be working alongside people whose performance sets a high standard, then you don’t lose that appeal to quality employees.

The Merit Systems Protection Board has some excellent reports concerning policies and law regarding management of poor performers, and also how hiring managers can productively utilize probationary periods. All can be found here: http://www.mspb.gov/studies/browsestudies.htm

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