Federal Workforce:

Improved Supervision and Better Use of Probationary Periods Are Needed to Address Substandard Employee Performance

GAO-15-191: Published: Feb 6, 2015. Publicly Released: Mar 9, 2015.

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Robert Goldenkoff
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What GAO Found

Federal agencies have three avenues to address employees' poor performance:

  1. Day-to-day performance management activities (such as providing regular performance feedback to employees) can produce more desirable outcomes for agencies and employees than dismissal options. However, supervisors do not always have effective skills, such as the ability to identify, communicate, and help address employee performance issues.
  2. Probationary periods for new employees provide supervisors with an opportunity to evaluate an individual's performance to determine if an appointment to the civil service should become final. According to the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs) that GAO interviewed, supervisors often do not use this time to make performance-related decisions about an employee's performance because they may not know that the probationary period is ending or they have not had time to observe performance in all critical areas
  3. Formal procedures —specifically chapters 43 and 75 of title 5 of the United States Code and OPM implementing regulations—require agencies to follow specified procedures when dismissing poor performing permanent employees, but they are more time and resource intensive than probationary dismissals.

Federal employees have protections designed to ensure that they are not subject to arbitrary agency actions. These protections include the ability to appeal dismissal actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) or to file a grievance. If employees are unsatisfied with the final decision of the MSPB or an arbitrator decision, they may seek judicial review.

The time and resource commitment needed to remove a poor performing permanent employee can be substantial. It can take six months to a year (and sometimes longer) to dismiss an employee. According to selected experts and GAO's literature review, concerns over internal support, lack of performance management training, and legal issues can also reduce a supervisor's willingness to address poor performance.

In 2013, agencies dismissed around 3,500 employees for performance or a combination of performance and conduct. Most dismissals took place during the probationary period. These figures do not account for those employees who voluntarily left rather than going through the dismissal process. While it is unknown how many employees voluntarily depart, the CHCOs that GAO interviewed said voluntary departures likely happen more often than dismissals.

To help agencies address poor performance, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) makes a range of tools and guidance available in different media, including its website, in-person training, and guidebooks. However, CHCOs and other experts said agencies are not always aware of this material and in some cases it fell short of their needs. Going forward, it will be important for OPM to use existing information sources, such as Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, to inform decisions about what material to develop and how best to distribute it.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal agencies' ability to address poor performance has been a long-standing issue. Employees and agency leaders share a perception that more needs to be done to address poor performance, as even a small number of poor performers can affect agencies' capacity to meet their missions.

GAO was asked to examine the rules and trends relating to the review and dismissal of federal employees for poor performance. This report (1) describes and compares avenues for addressing poor performance, (2) describes issues that can affect an agency's response to poor performance, (3) determines trends in how agencies have resolved cases of poor performance since 2004, and (4) assesses the extent to which OPM provides guidance that agencies need to address poor performance. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed OPM data, and interviewed, among others, OPM and MSPB officials, selected CHCOs, and selected union officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations to OPM to strengthen agencies' ability to deal with poor performers including working with stakeholders to assess the leadership training agencies provide to supervisors. OPM concurred or partially concurred with all but one recommendation noting that GAO's recommendation to explore using an automated process to notify supervisors when a probationary period is about to end is an agency responsibility. GAO agrees and has clarified the recommendation.

For more information, contact Robert Goldenkoff at (202) 512-2757 or goldenkoffr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of March 2016, OPM has not provided information about plans to address this recommendation. According to OPM officials, they are gathering pertinent information from relevant program offices and will provide when available.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers and to help ensure supervisors obtain the skills needed to effectively conduct performance management responsibilities, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should assess the adequacy of leadership training that agencies provide to supervisors.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of October 2016, OPM told us they were holding meetings to determine how to respond to this recommendation. They expect to completely address this recommendation by December 31, 2016.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers and to more effectively ensure that agencies have a well-qualified cadre of supervisors capable of effectively addressing poor performance, the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should determine if promising practices at some agencies should be more widely used government-wide. Such practices include (1) extending the supervisory probationary period beyond 1-year to include at least one full employee appraisal cycle; (2) providing detail opportunities or rotational assignments to supervisory candidates prior to promotion, where the candidate can develop and demonstrate supervisory competencies; and (3) using a dual career ladder structure as a way to advance employees who may have particular technical skills and/or education but who are not interested in or inclined to pursue a management or supervisory track.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  3. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of October 2016, OPM reported having made progress in implementing this recommendation by briefing the CHCO Council in May 2015. OPM also also briefed and discussed recommendations with agency labor and employee relations practitioners in October 2014, March 2015, and July 2015 and has developed guidance on federal employee accountability to be released at a later date, including discussions over whether supervisors should be be automatically notified when a probationary period is ending. They are continuing discussions with agency and employee relations practitioners on this topic. In response to the second part of the recommendation, OPM indicated that following internal discussions, they do not plan pursue statutory changes on the broader use of probationary periods at this time.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers and to help supervisors make effective use of the probationary period for new employees the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should (1) educate agencies on the benefits of using automated notifications to notify supervisors that an individual's probationary period is ending and that the supervisor needs to make an affirmative decision or otherwise take appropriate action, and encourage its use to the extent it is appropriate and cost-effective for the agency; and (2) determine whether there are occupations in which--because of the nature of work and complexity--the probationary period should extend beyond 1-year to provide supervisors with sufficient time to assess an individual's performance. If determined to be warranted, initiate the regulatory process to extend existing probationary periods and, where necessary, develop a legislative proposal for congressional action to ensure that formal procedures for taking action against an employee for poor performance (and a right to appeal such an action) are not afforded until after the completion of any extended probationary period.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OPM completed a review of survey tools for purposes of training related to dealing with poor performers. The review established that current questions of these survey tools are not helpful or relevant to inform decisions on content and distribution methods of current or future training on dealing with poor performers. OPM also conducted a review of survey tools for the purposes of training related to performance management. It determined that questions on and responses to the PAAT are agency-specific and do not serve as an ideal foundation on which to build governmentwide training on handling poor performance, or even general performance management training or tools. OPM issues guidance to support governmentwide performance management. According to OPM, the content of such guidance is generally informed by feedback from the CHCO Council and managers of Agency Performance Management programs, as well as issues identified during semi-annual OPM-sponsored Performance Management Forums, to ensure the guidance is relevant, applicable and effective in meeting agencies' and supervisors' needs.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the ability of agencies to deal with poor performers, and to help ensure OPM's tools and guidance for dealing with poor performers are cost-effectively meeting agencies' and supervisors' needs,the Director of OPM, in conjunction with the CHCO Council and, as appropriate, with key stakeholders such as federal employee labor unions, should use Strategic Human Capital Management survey results (once available), Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, Performance Appraisal Assessment Tool responses, and other existing information, as relevant, to inform decisions on content and distribution methods. The importance of effective performance management and addressing poor performance may need to be reinforced with agency supervisors so that they more routinely seek out tools and guidance.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management


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