Reinventing Human Resource Management

HRM05: Strengthen Systems to Support Management in Dealing with Poor Performers


The General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), after collecting data through surveys and/or site visits, concluded that effective federal managers can and regularly do deal with poor performers, either rehabilitating them or removing them. MSPB reported that about 64 percent of the federal supervisors they surveyed had dealt with at least one poor performer in the past two years; 90 percent said they counseled and worked with poor performers informally; and 88 percent said they would take formal action if and when such informal actions fail.(1) Similarly, GAO reported, "Contrary to general perceptions, supervisors were generally willing to deal with their poor performers and expressed a willingness to deal with them in the future."(2) However, GAO also reported that supervisors view the process for dealing with poor performers as unduly difficult and time-consuming. GAO found that an average supervisor spent about five hours per week working with each poor performer under his or her supervision and that this time commitment could last for months. Furthermore, GAO found that the slowness of the process discouraged some supervisors from taking any serious action against a poor performer.(3)

GAO noted that supervisors have the greatest difficulty dealing with employees who are rated minimally satisfactory. This rating falls between unsatisfactory and fully satisfactory in five-level rating systems. There are few actions that a supervisor can take to deal with employees who are rated minimally satisfactory, and, as a result, some employees remain at this level for extended periods of time. One option that GAO proposed for consideration was eliminating the minimally satisfactory rating.(4)

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) sought to make it easier for managers to deal with poor performers by developing better performance management systems and reforming the appeals and grievance processes to make them less of a deterrent to employee discipline. As noted in HRM03, CSRA and post-CSRA performance management systems have not resulted in improved individual and organizational performance. CSRA did modify the burden of proof necessary to sustain a performance-based adverse action. Whereas the burden of proof in an adverse action because of misconduct is the preponderance of evidence standard, there is a lower standard of proof on an agency in an appeal of a performance-based adverse action--the substantial evidence standard. Legal experts explain: "This means, in practice, that even if the employee presents a good argument that he performed his job, the supervisor's judgment that the employee did not accomplish his job will be accepted unless the supervisor's opinion is unreasonable or has no factual support. This evidentiary standard has resulted in nearly all performance-based adverse actions being sustained by the MSPB . . ."(5) They also point out potential difficulties: "The most frequent reason an agency has difficulty sustaining a performance-based adverse action is an inadequately developed performance standard."(6)

Need for Change

There are improvements in systems, culture, and skill that can help managers deal more effectively with poor performers.

Improved Systems. As noted in HRM03, current performance management programs have multiple conflicting objectives and as a result meet none of them-- most importantly, the objective that performance improve. In addition, performance management programs were not designed to be consistent with or supportive of agency culture and are not owned by agency managers. The actions contained in HRM03 are designed to result in agency-based performance management programs that seek improvement in the performance of all employees and identify poor performers for appropriate action. Agencies would, for example, be able to design performance management systems that do not include the minimally satisfactory rating. Agencies can use the performance incentives described in HRM04 to motivate employees to improve their performance. Agencies also need to develop their own approaches to help poor performers improve their performance so it meets expectations, and take appropriate action if performance expectations are not met after assistance is provided.

It is also important that changes be made in performance systems to reduce the amount of time it takes to deal with poor performers. For example, the length of time that poor performers are given to demonstrate improved performance is often considered excessive. The 30-day notice period that the law requires before removal or certain other adverse actions can be taken is also too long. After action is taken against poor performers, there can be a lengthy review and appeal process. While an employee's right to due process must be protected, there is a need for streamlining the current processes. The actions outlined in HRM08, "Improve Processes and Procedures Established to Provide Workplace Due Process for Employees," if adopted, would contribute to streamlined appeals processes, especially if agencies adopt alternative dispute resolution methods.

Cultural Changes. GAO recommended that "agency management . . . focus on creating an environment within which supervisors are encouraged and motivated to identify poor performers and are properly trained and supported when they attempt to deal with them."(7) Similarly, 25 percent of the supervisors surveyed by MSPB reported that lack of management support was an obstacle to taking action against poor performers. Managers and supervisors must be more effectively supported in dealing with poor performers. Agency management must be held accountable for establishing a culture that supports high performance and development of excellent performance management programs. Managers and supervisors throughout an agency must be held accountable for using culture and programs to achieve organizational goals, improve employee performance, and rehabilitate or remove poor performers. Moving to a more results-oriented management culture will support this change.

Improved Knowledge and Skills. Training can be an effective way to improve supervisory skills. The most critical skills are the interpersonal skills that a supervisor needs to communicate with an employee to develop performance standards, provide performance feedback, and improve employee performance. Supervisors also need skill in performance planning and performance management. Knowledge of performance management and disciplinary policies and procedures should be part of a comprehensive training effort and made readily available to managers or supervisors through written or electronic job aids that explain the rules and how to apply them. Managers and supervisors also need technical assistance from knowledgeable consultants with expertise in this area.


1. Reduce by half the time required to terminate federal managers and employees for cause. Make other improvements in the systems for dealing with poor performers. (3)

In designing performance management programs as outlined in HRM03, agencies should include methods through which the time frames for terminating employees for cause will be reduced by half. To support this effort, the director of OPM will develop legislation to change the required time for notice of termination from 30 days to 15 days. This legislation should also require the waiting period for a within- grade increase to be extended by the amount of time an employee's performance does not meet expectations; that is, only the time that an employee's performance meets expectations will be creditable toward the required waiting period.

2. Develop a culture of performance that supports supervisors' efforts to deal with poor performers. (1)

Agency heads should create an organizational culture in which high performance is expected and performance management programs are seen as tools for achieving high performance. Agency heads should hold managers and supervisors accountable for dealing with poor performers--ensuring that managers (1) give assistance to employees who fail to meet performance expectations, and (2) take appropriate action (e.g., reassignment, demotion, or removal) if the employee's performance does not improve. Agencies should develop methods and procedures for monitoring how managers and supervisors deal with poor performers and use the information collected to identify issues that require the attention of top management, such as changes in the performance management system or skill deficiencies that can be addressed through training.

3. Improve supervisors' knowledge and skills in dealing with poor performers. (1)

Agency heads should give managers and supervisors training as needed in performance management, including development of performance standards and the interpersonal skills required for successful management of performance. Agencies should give managers and supervisors support (such as job aids or expert systems) and assistance (e.g., consultation as needed) in improving the performance of all employees, especially the poor performers, and in removal of employees if performance does not improve.

Developing effective systems that are focused specifically on performance improvement, creating a culture where high performance is expected and recognized and poor performance dealt with effectively and expeditiously, and ensuring that supervisors have the knowledge, skills, and support they need to improve employee performance are expected to enhance the efforts of supervisors to deal with poor performers. Requiring agencies to monitor efforts to deal with poor performers and using that information to improve systems, culture, and support for performance improvement should help keep attention focused on this critical issue.


1. U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Personnel Policies and Practices--Perspectives from the Workplace (Washington, D.C., 1987), pp. 9-12.

2. U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Performance Management: How Well is the Government Dealing with Poor Performers?, GAO-GGD-91-7 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, October 1990), p. 2.

3. Ibid., pp. 32-33, 37.

4. Ibid., p. 28.

5. Shaw, Jerry G., and William L. Bransford, The Federal Manager's Handbook: A Guide to Rehabilitating or Removing the Problem Employee (Washington, D.C., 1992), p. 82.

6. Ibid., p. 85.

7. GAO, p. 3.

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