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Editorial: Hold poor performers accountable, starting now

Feb. 17, 2013 - 02:25PM   |  
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Managers and employees alike understand that, as budgets tighten up and staffs pare down due to hiring freezes, every person counts even more. There is no room for those who can’t pull their own weight.

That’s one reason why more managers are denying within-grade step increases to poor performers.

But while the increase is significant — a 17 percent rise over three years — the numbers remain minuscule: 99.9 percent of feds get every step increase available to them, which, statistically speaking, makes these raises automatic.

Most federal employees perform well. But even if the vast majority merit the increases, that doesn’t equate to 100 percent.

Annual federal employee satisfaction surveys show employees overwhelmingly believe their managers fail to hold poor performers to account. Statistics like these bear that out.

Blame the managers, but don’t stop there. Senior managers must be first in line to demand accountability.

If instead they recoil at the thought of time spent dealing with the Merit Systems Protection Board and other legal challenges, the unspoken message down the chain is “don’t bother.”

As agencies find themselves having to do more with less, managers at all levels must embrace the fact that accountability drives efficiency. Only by holding employees accountable for work results at every level can leadership weed out poor performers and optimize their operations.

The central problem here is that managers have let poor performers skate by for so long that they lack the documentation to suddenly hold them more accountable now. But there’s no time like the present. By setting clear performance goals and taking the time to measure progress and to meet and discuss performance with struggling staff, they can set the stage to either drive improved performance or take adverse action.

Managers must also know that their superiors will support them as they get tough with poor performers.

Yes, there will be appeals and discrimination cases filed against them (indeed, an increase in employee appeals at the Merit Systems Protection Board parallels the increase in denied step increases). But that is simply a necessary cost of doing business.

Leaders must make clear to supervisors that they will be backed up whenever they move to hold employees accountable.

Managers face many challenges, and most are out of their control — budget uncertainty and austerity being the biggest ones. But there are other challenges — especially dealing effectively with poor performers — that are entirely within their control.

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