John Klossner

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Federal slackers: What's the real story?

cubicle nap

In the numerous articles, blogs and comments sections I have been consuming, there is one person who is almost always a leading player in any account of the federal workforce. It's gotten to the point where, whenever I'm reading another piece about public workers, I await this player's entrance. It can be a subtle appearance, a sentence or two hidden among the accounts, or the full-blown lead, screaming in the opening.

I'm referring to the under- or non-performing public employee.

Who is this person?

It's almost as if there is a requirement, when writing about government employees, to mention that certain feds aren't doing the work. I imagine it was collectively bargained at one point: "OK, we'll give you full medical with dental, and a solid pension, but whenever you talk or write about government workplaces, you have to include at least two sentences acknowledging underperforming workers. Let me know if you'd like to use our template."

It comes across as an agencywide insecurity: "Yes, we accomplished A, B and C. Would anyone like to see pictures of our underperformers?" You could be writing about an agency that has found a cure for cancer while putting out wildfires as it negotiated a Middle East peace deal, but you still must mention that, of course, there were underperforming employees involved.

Is this an accurate picture? How have underperforming employees become representative of the public workplace as a whole? Do these caricatures – the lava-lamp employee at the post office, the over-caffeinated snarler at the DMV, the teacher who is out of the parking lot before the kids are on the bus – really represent the public employee community?

I found a statistic (sorry, this was the most recent I could come up with) stating that, in 1999, the Office of Personnel Management estimated that underperforming employees comprised approximately 3.7 percent of the federal workforce. Allowing for COLA-level growth (or undergrowth), that is still a small number to be so representative of the entire workforce. So how and why are they the face? (And how do you come up with estimate of underperforming employees? Do you send out a questionnaire and figure that anyone who has the time to answer must be a slacker?)

It's not that there isn't a problem here. As discussions about how to make government more efficient continue, one of the topics constantly visited is how to best compensate public employees, with a focus on how to implement a pay-for-performance system.

The problem seems to be systemic. There are numerous anecdotes of management being unable to follow a simple process for employee evaluations. Online comments tell of employees who feel that their managers don't give proper performance reviews, and managers tell of having their hands tied when trying to deal with underperforming employees.

Is the problem merely human interaction? A group of people working on high-cost projects in a stressed-out economy with heated partisan oversight – I'm pretty sure this would qualify as one of those lab tests where the rats start eating each other. Which, if you follow reader comments, is a pretty accurate metaphor for what is going on.

Maybe we need to better identify the underperformers, in order to let everyone know how little their numbers are? I suggest giving underperformers special seating in office spaces, meeting rooms and cafeterias – and perhaps requiring them to wear color-coded clothes or IDs – so that everyone can get a better idea of how small this group actually is.

Great, another project that the other 95-plus percent public workers will have to take care of.

pay for performance

Posted on Apr 14, 2011 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Tue, May 24, 2011 EricE

Larry is spot on. The real problem is twofold. First, the underperforming worker that every office seems to have is a cancer and frustration and huge de-motivator for those who do choose to exceed. They can be a huge sap of moral and often management, especially upper management, tends to discount their real impact on an organization. Second, as Larry indicated it can be almost impossible to eliminate truly problem employees. As a new supervisor, I went to OPM's excellent two week new supervisor boot camp and one of the sessions was titled "How to Fire a Federal Employee". It was intended as a myth-busting session and show a real plan (you can get the DVD here ). My problem was, when I went back to my agency, my management was less than enthused at supporting my actions, and HR was even less than enthused. Mr. Wiley (who lead the class at OPM - and was VERY good) spoke of a forward thinking agency that had specialists in HR that could take over much of the paperwork and process from a supervisor. HR, in essence *partnered* with the supervisor to deal with problem employees. While that, in and of itself is amazing, I think it also points to an agency-wide attitude about dealing with marginal employees that probably sets a tone and causes much of the problem to self-regulate itself. If I'm a marginal employee and I know the agency as a whole will have little tolerance for me, I'll either step up, or more than likely move to more fertile grounds. So yes, while it may be a statistically small number, it is still a serious problem. Underperforming employee's cause a disproportionate amount of impact, and I wish more agency heads and upper management would take it more seriously. Then again as was pointed out, the revolving management door causes most managers to be focused on short term gains they can get credit for and use for their next gig, while sacrificing many of the tough decisions that need to be made for long term success. But that's a whole other issue...

Thu, Apr 21, 2011

They are the "face" because no matter how beautiful a face, if 3.7% of it consists of a glaring blemish, you can't help but focus on it. And unlike slackers at the grocery checkout or phone company call center, the customer is more frustrated since they can't switch vendors, and the coworkers are annoyed that taxpayer funds are wasted. Many of us are here to serve citizens, not our wallets, so we're even more outraged at our leaders' disregard for this injustice.

Wed, Apr 20, 2011

Any large organization is going to have a small percentage of people who do as little as they can get away with. The government is no exception to this. The problem is that the public remembers the one guy goofing off and forgets about the other 99 folk who are getting the work done.

Mon, Apr 18, 2011 Larry

Interesting comments about management and workers in general. As a very senior manager who tried to get rid of a nonperforming person, the time, effort and expense to the organization to accomplish the task was incredible and lasted more than 5 years. First the union fight and the FLRA hearings, followed by a Civil Federal court case. If this kind of effort is required to remove someone from Federal service for nonperformance at any level, it is no wonder that people are promoted or passed on to another position, just to get rid of them. "They are no longer my problem" is not a management solution. The real issue is being able to fire someone without the lengthy process involved and the (to quote one of my managers) "50 million chances". The civilian market can reorganize and let people go or fire someone for poor performance, the federal government can't. I was very proud of 99% of my people. They worked long and hard hours to accomplish some very important, and sometimes difficult things. It was my 1% I felt helpless to deal with because of the beauracracy protecting them. I think the 3% may be a good number, but dealing with them is too hard under the current system. Revise the system and allow people to be rewarded for true performance, not just "brown-nosing" the supervisor.

Mon, Apr 18, 2011

There are several reasons for people to be perceived as under performing. I believe it to be an excuse. No one I know would ever wake up in the morning and say I am going in to the office and under perform. What I have observed in 20 years of government service and 10 years private industry work is that people want to be valued for their skills, be a part of the team, and contribute to solution that makes the mission successful.

The reasons for under performance:
1. Organizational re-orgs mismatch skill sets and jobs
2. High turn over rate at the supervisory level
3. Under qualified Supervisors
4. Poor supervisory direction
5. Micro-management
6. Lack of authority to get the work done
7. Involvement in projects where person has no skill to offer
8. Slanderous testament by co-workers

1. Unfortunately if you take an individual who is really a go getter and move him/her into a position under someone who does not appreciate their energy then no matter how hard they try to sustain their level of credibility and success it is doomed to eventually be damaged beyond repair; so most people will move on before letting this happen.

2. In governments especially the rotation of management is incredibly high and unfortunately the people put in charge don’t really understand how to treat people let alone manage them which contributes to several of the reasons for low performers as an excuse.

3. So many supervisors I have seen over the years were hired because of who they knew not what they knew – unfortunately this ultimately hurts the organization because when the failure happens and it almost always does – the blame will fall on the subject matter expert who been struggling to get the under qualified supervisor to do the right thing.

4. If employees are not given strong direction on their duties or how relevant to the organization those tasks are; nor allowed to accomplish those tasks with minimal supervision; you cannot criticize them as Low performers. There must be clear measures without obstacles to identify low performance.

5. Micro-Management is the worst way to run an outfit – if one person can do all the jobs then why do you need anyone else? The perception of low performance is perpetuated by this inefficient management style – Micro-Management. Workload balancing and delegation is how to run an outfit – or you will find yourself always behind schedule and over cost.

6. Not having authority to get the job done – “Publish a policy making all departments utilize the same Configuration Management System.”

7. Cabinet maker Jones you will be working in the welding shop today. Suddenly Jones is a high paid tool carrier and perceived as a low performer for it.

8. Perception from other employees for whatever reason can perpetuate an image of low performance of an individual whom is very capable and in many cases better than their detractors.

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