Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: Readers talk about poor performers in government

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

I received many responses to my “Dealing with poor performers in government” column, with readers sharing experiences and advice—and frustrations—on the topic.

Here’s what one reader, a former State Department employee, had to say:

    “Your column made perfect sense to me. However, the implication in it and most other similar articles I’ve read seems to be that only non-supervisory personnel are the problem, as though all employees GS-14 and up were uniformly above reproach. In my 34 years at the State Department I saw that the opposite was true—there were at least as many low-performing “higher-ups” as there were “front line” employees. The only difference was that the higher-ranking employees were usually rewarded, financially and otherwise, and very rarely punished, whether they were any good at their jobs or not. That of course raises another question: Why so many people clearly unsuited to managerial jobs are appointed to them?”

Another reader brought up the other side of the poor performance issue, and asked some questions:

    “What can an employee who has been disciplined for poor performance request from a supervisor in the way of help in improving his performance? If the job has become more difficult and stressful, how can the employee seek assignments more suitable to his skill level or seek a transfer? What resources are available to an employee who seems to be targeted for firing? How can an employee protect himself?”

Readers also shared their personal experiences dealing with poor performers in government. Here’s what a former federal HR official said:

    “In my experience as a hiring official when working with the feds was that most poor performance could be traced directly to the hiring process. People who conduct the interviews after reviewing and selecting interviewees from resumés or KSAs, generally had no idea what the job entailed. They knew little or nothing about the office or group they were hiring for and the managers (aka ‘hiring official’) would opt for the expedient course of ‘fill the position so we can get some work done.’ A rebuttable presumption in government work is that if you spent a year as a GS-9 you were somehow qualified for GS-10, or GS-11 if in a ladder position…Every manager should be trained to properly interview candidates, understanding their strengths and talents so as to match them to the job requirements (if the manager even understands them him/herself) and how that candidate will fit within the existing team.”

This next reader comment reinforces the importance of supervisors setting clear expectations and supporting the growth of their employees:

    “The good workers wish supervisors would do their jobs and supervise. Poor performers affect everyone. Unfortunately, supervisors don’t take the first step—having the conversation and setting realistic goals for the poor performer to meet. Oh yeah, following through to ensure the new goals are met. It’s really management 101, but too many only want the money and title without the management duties.”

Finally, this reader comment is a reminder about the essential services that our nation’s public servants provide to the American people:

    “Could it be that some of these federal managers and supervisors who think poor performance is not worth bothering about are themselves the problem? If so, could it be that they want to keep it that way? I have never dealt with any of them. I have dealt with only those the public meets when I went to the IRS or the Peace Corps or Federal Attorney for help. I have always found federal workers to be helpful, friendly, attentive, and efficient, so much so that I have never had to talk to a supervisor or manager.”

Please share your ideas and experience dealing with poor performers in government by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on May 14, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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