Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Can’t promote someone who deserves it?

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

In September, I held an online training for GovLoop members around the three key secrets for rising up to the challenge of leadership. I received a lot of great questions during the training, and I wanted to share this timely one from a government employee:

How can I inspire a staff person who is angry about not getting a promotion? I know he deserves it, but I have no control over getting an upgrade during these hard fiscal times.

It can be difficult to motivate someone who – whether rightly or wrongly – has been passed over for a promotion. The same is true for motivating your high-performing employees given the possibility of pay freezes and limited, if any, promotions in the foreseeable future.

To start, have an honest conversation with your employee. Begin the conversation by expressing your sincere appreciation for his hard work and results, before going into the reasons underlying the decision not to promote him.

Next, provide your employee with the reasons why he may have been passed over for a promotion. Was it due to fiscal constraints? Are there things – despite his high performance – that he still needs to work on that surfaced during your panel conversations with other senior leaders? By providing him with an understanding of the circumstances, you will allow him not only a chance to vent his frustrations but also a chance to be proactive about working to achieve the goals established by you and the other senior leaders when making these promotion decisions.

Before wrapping up the conversation, let him know that, while promotion decisions are made by the organization, you want to find other creative ways of rewarding him to help sustain his performance and cultivate ongoing professional development.

Ask this employee if you can help him find a senior leader mentor in your agency. Or, identify a conference or other training opportunity. You might also consider offering him more flexibility on the job.

As you talk with your employee about what motivates him beyond the promotion, make every effort to find at least one positive step you can take to demonstrate your commitment and appreciation. Of course, you then need to follow through.

And remember, as a supervisor, it’s your job to be your employee’s advocate 24/7, not just during the performance cycle. Even in these hard economic times, the best folks can always find other opportunities. As a result, try engaging your senior leaders in a conversation around your concerns and solicit their ideas about motivating and retaining your very best folks.

I also wanted to share the following comment from a retired federal employee in response to my column on poor performers.

“My conclusion is in agreement with the title of Wednesday's column – the objective must be to get the most out of all employees – but I have concluded that in our system it has become more cost-effective to figure out a way to work around poor performers. A more effective approach to getting the most out of poor performers might be to figure out how to give these square pegs something within their capabilities and motivation, rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes or trying to get rid of the square pegs. I was once skeptical of the advice of a former boss who counseled that, in government, you are not often given the choice of who works for you and the challenge is not to get them to do what you want, it’s to find the job that they can do and get them to do it well. Reflecting on my subsequent experience, he had a point. If only all government managers had the luxury of managing that way.

This is an inexhaustible subject but I’ll just stop here wishing I had time to articulate some of this more clearly. Thanks for focusing on the issues facing our workforce. It will never be perfectly efficient but we need good people to hang in there.”

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Oct 21, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 CO

Poor Performers and Nepotism - As a union representative I ran across a poor performer-nepotism situation. A bargaining unit member complained they couldn't get pass point or person A to get to point and person B because of another employee. Bottomline - I discovered that the employee in position A was a very close friend of the supervisor. As I dug deeper I found that the "friend" situation was more like distant family member. After speaking with the supervisor I concluded that the supervisor wouldn't admonish (but would attempt to encourage) this person. I explained the entire matter - as I saw it - to the second line supervisor who basically helpless. Seems the second line supervisor had befriended this person some years ago and were in the supervisory position because of this relationship and felt they owed something. I told my member what I found and suggested a couple of routes. The member was just happy to know and stated they would opt for early retirement. Making friends and having relatives in the federal government is great and sometimes hindering. Firing and admonishment shouldn't be exclusive of rank and file members. The agency closed ranks and have done nothing. This sets up a bad precedents What would you suggest?

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Emma Cleveland

Perhaps it is time for this person to dust off the resume, and start looking for another job. After all was this their first time or 4th?

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