Issues Related to Poor Performers in the Federal Workplace

GAO-05-812R: Published: Jun 29, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2005.

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George H. Stalcup
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Office of Public Affairs
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Many factors contribute to an organization's success in accomplishing its mission, but none more than the effective management and utilization of its greatest asset--its employees. A high-performing organization relies on a dynamic workforce with the requisite talents, multidisciplinary knowledge, and up-to-date skills to ensure that it is equipped to accomplish its mission and achieve its goals. An effective performance management system can help an organization manage the day-to-day activities that allow employees to perform at their highest levels by creating a clear linkage--"line of sight"--between individual performance and organizational success. In the current environment where federal agencies are facing the challenges of transforming themselves, some agencies have begun to create results-oriented organizational cultures where unit and individual performance is linked to organizational goals. Effective performance management systems can help create such cultures by providing objective information to allow managers to make meaningful distinctions in performance in order to reward top performers and deal with poor performers. For example, final regulations establishing the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) new human capital system state that DHS supervisors and managers are to be held accountable for making meaningful distinctions among employees based on performance, fostering and rewarding excellent performance, and addressing poor performance. Although poor performance is not defined by statute, title 5 of the United States Code characterizes unacceptable performance as "performance of an employee which fails to meet established performance standards in one or more critical elements of such employee's position." The DHS and the proposed Department of Defense (DOD) systems deny pay increases to employees with unacceptable performance ratings. The exact number of poor performers in the federal government is unknown; however, it is generally agreed that even a small number of poor performers can have a negative impact on the work environment. In this regard, general agreement exists that poor performance should be addressed earlier rather than later, with the objective of improving the performance. Surveys of supervisors and employees have identified a number of impediments to taking action to deal with poor performance. Based on a Congressional request for information on issues relating to the management of poor performers in the federal government, our objectives were to: (1) synthesize and update currently available information related to the a) magnitude of the poor performer issue in the federal government; b) tools and approaches available to agencies, including DHS and DOD, for addressing poor performance; and c) impediments identified to dealing with poor performers; and (2) present key factors for addressing poor performance, based on past work and leading practices.

In brief, we reported that studies provide varying indicators of the magnitude of poor performance in the federal workforce. For example, while a 1999 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey of supervisors estimated that poor performers constituted about 3.7 percent of the federal workforce, OPM's Central Personnel Data File data indicate that of those employees rated in fiscal year 2003, 0.3 percent received an unacceptable performance rating. In the Merit Systems Protection Board's 2000 survey, employees perceived that 14.3 percent of their coworkers were performing below reasonably expected levels. Some of the variance in the survey results can be attributed to the populations surveyed and the questions posed. Various tools and approaches are available to deal with performance, including poor performance. We provide several examples, which are not intended to be representative of all approaches available to agencies. Foremost, as we have stated, establishing an effective performance management system is important in providing candid and constructive feedback to help individuals maximize their performance. Effective use of probationary periods to rigorously review employee performance is also important since the probationary period may be viewed as the final opportunity to evaluate performance before permanent appointment. Furthermore, some agencies have used other approaches, unrelated to performance management or probationary employment, to address poor performance. Such approaches include denying pay increases to employees with unacceptable performance ratings, streamlining the appeals processes, and increasing the use of alternative dispute resolution to address workplace disputes that involve disciplinary or adverse actions. Various studies, reports, and surveys of federal supervisors and employees we reviewed have identified various impediments to dealing with poor performance, including issues related to (1) time and complexity of the processes; (2) lack of training in performance management; and (3) communication, including the dislike of confrontation. Results of OPM's 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey, published subsequent to the completion of our audit work, support the view that impediments still exist. Responding to the statement: "In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve," 27 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed, while 41 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. Looking forward, it will be important to carefully evaluate the implementation of DHS's and DOD's personnel and performance management systems to determine their effectiveness and potential application governmentwide, including the tools and approaches that are aimed at addressing poor performance. However, this will take time. In the interim, it will be important to continue to institute performance-based cultures and provide adequate training and resources on performance management.

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  • employment icon, source: GAO

    Priority Open Recommendations:

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