Whenever I teach
a class to government supervisors, I always pose the following question to the
group: "What does the government do with a problem employee?" Invariably, the
entire audience answers as one, "They move him."
a sad commentary on the state of human resources management in government. The
people who are responsible for managing the government's employees believe that
the way to deal with problem employees is in essence, to not deal with them.
net result of this commonly held belief is that almost everyone is unhappy --
certainly the general public is displeased because they feel its civil servants
are virtually invulnerable; many members of Congress are upset because they
think that government employees are not being held accountable; government
managers are frustrated because they believe they are powerless to properly
deal with non-performing subordinates; and the top 90% or so of the
government's workforce is also less than happy because they don't appreciate working
very hard while seeing a co-worker who does not pull his weight receive the
same salary, bonus, etc.
Beware the Downward Spiral
fact, the only group that seems pleased with this arrangement are the employees
at the bottom...and why not? They put in the least effort of any group, complain
to their hearts' content, and skate by year after year with nobody doing
anything about them. Moreover, they continue to collect government paychecks,
receive excellent benefits, become eligible for periodic step increases, build
their retirement portfolios, etc. What a great deal!
everyone else concludes that the government is not serious about performance.
After all, if poor performers are not dealt with, the unspoken message is that
whatever they do, their performance is still good enough for government work. In
essence, the old cliché becomes the reality -- once you have a government job
you are untouchable. At the same time, the other employees see this, conclude
that it is not worth killing themselves if mediocre or worse performance will
result in the same consequences, and before you know it, you have an
organization that is on a downward spiral.
commonly held belief is that no one deals with poor performers because the
system makes it too difficult to deal with them. It takes too much time, too
much effort and in the end, nothing is going to happen anyway, so why should
the supervisor waste her time when she has better things to do...like supervising
the rest of the employees under her?
Be Firm and Prompt
problem with this line of reasoning is that management gives up before it even
tries to turn the employee around. In other words, since we can't get rid of
the employee, let's not waste our time trying. If the employee becomes too big
of a burden, we'll simply move him to some unsuspecting supervisor and he will
become her problem. Unfortunately, this happens all the time and as a result,
people watching this little farce conclude there is no discipline; no
accountability; and that excellence is not important.
real issue here is not the system; although admittedly, the government's
personnel system can be rigid and sometimes takes too long. No, the real
problem is government supervisors who either do not know how to deal with
problem employees or are simply unwilling to do so.
supervisors begin dealing with their problem employees in a fair, firm and
prompt manner, it would send a powerful message that would resonate throughout
government. People would see that there is accountability, there are consequences
for poor performance and excellence is valued.
course, in the short term, there will be some pain, as you are likely to have a
pushback from both the employees and the union -- but that is to be expected and
is the cost of doing business. However, if you withstand the first wave and
continue to hold your ground, while treating your employees fairly and
equitably, everyone will get the message you are serious and you will be on
your way to changing the culture and improving your organization.
the next time a problem employee comes to your attention; resist the urge to
move him. Take a different approach -- deal with him and you will be glad you
More from Stewart Liff on Government:
How to Win the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees (Part 2)
How to Win the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees (Part 1)
Winning the Hearts and Minds of Government Employees
Stewart Liff writes on human resources management issues in
government for OhMyGov. A recipient of the President's Council on
Management Improvement Award, he is the author of five books, including
the just-released Improving the Performance of Government Employees. His expertise includes employee relations, labor relations, Equal
Employment Opportunity (EEO), performance management, staffing,
training, rewards and recognition, metrics, systems design and