GAO Report on Poor Performance

The U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a report on how to address substandard employee performance. Specifically, the report found that government agencies generally have three avenues in which to address poor employee performance:

  • Using day-to-day performance management activities (e.g., providing regular performance feedback to employees)
  • Probationary periods, which provide supervisors with an opportunity to evaluate a probationer’s performance
  • Formal procedures (i.e., 5 USC chapters 43 and 75 and OPM implementing regulations) that require agencies to follow certain procedures when removing poorly performing employees

To address this issue, GAO recommended that agencies consider lengthening the probationary periods for new employees and new supervisors, and that managers should improve the way they measure employee performance.

As one of the individuals that GAO interviewed for their report, I agree with all of the conclusions and recommendations.  I also believe, however, that the best way to improve the manner in which government deals with poor performers is to change the government culture. That is, to develop a culture whereby people are truly held accountable for their performance and behavior.  Reward outstanding employees, retain average employees, and take action to help poorly performing employees improve.  But, if poorly performing employees do not improve, they should be removed.

For this to happen, an agency-by-agency commitment is required to build the right culture and approach, which I believe is eminently achievable. Simply put, each agency needs to develop both the will and the skill to deal with poor performers. To accomplish this, each agency needs to:

  1. Establish a core philosophy, from the top of the organization to the bottom, that they will address poor performers, and not just move them or promote them
  2. Identify and develop the right supervisors and provide them with the training, tools and support needed to deal with poor performers
  3. Rebuild the HR field so that it is once again comprised of experts who can help advise and guide a supervisor on how to deal with a poor performer
  4. Ensure that managers and supervisors have an effective performance management system in place to establish clear expectations, track performance, identify poor performers, provide poorly performing individuals with feedback, and help them improve when appropriate and take proper actions when necessary

 If government agencies put the right players (with the proper mindsets) in place, and provide excellent training and support, along with a strong and effective performance management system, it could truly change not only the way that government deals with poorly performing employees, but also establish a performance-driven government-wide culture.

Stewart Liff is an HRM, visual performance management, and team development expert and a Fellow with The Performance Institute. He is the author and co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders.

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