Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: How to cure federal workers’ biggest workplace pains

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

My recent column on how federal senior executives have vastly different perceptions than their employees on a number of critical workplace issues struck a chord with readers, many of whom described their own experiences.

The readers were responding to an analysis of a federal employee survey, which revealed that senior executives are quite satisfied with the fairness of promotions, the way poor performers are handled and the recognition and awards given for good job performance—while federal employees believe that many executives are failing on these issues.

Several readers said the problems begin with the selection of senior executives, suggesting agencies sometimes do a poor job of identifying and choosing leaders who have the organizational, people and management skills required for success. Making matters worse, several noted that poor performing executives are seldom replaced.

“I've seen incompetent individuals promoted to key positions where their failure is a significant drag on the director's ability to accomplish mission goals,” wrote one federal employee. “Then the process for demoting or removing them is stuck and there they stay.”

Another reader suggested that far too often, technical experts are promoted into leadership positions as a means of offering them a pay raise, even though they lack the training or ability to manage a staff. In short, a well-intentioned retention strategy for high-performing employees sometimes goes awry.

There is some truth to both of these observations. Senior political and career leaders should be working with their human resources team to examine and improve the way they recruit and select their senior executives, and to step up evaluations to be sure they are passing muster. This is not always easy and there are no guarantees of success, but getting capable leaders in place is critical.

Secondly, newly selected leaders need training and support. Few agencies pursue aggressive strategies around onboarding new executives and offering ongoing education, such as peer coaching from more experienced leaders, or providing mentors and other opportunities for professional growth. Some of the smartest executives are those who recognize there is a lot that they don’t know.

As a result, agencies run the risk of hiring potentially effective executives but then not giving them the support they need to develop and grow in the job. In the worst case, agencies hire ineffective executives who are never given the opportunity to learn and build the skills they so desperately need. Creating a culture in which asking for or accepting help is seen as a strength for an executive, rather than a weakness, can be a real asset in this regard.

[The huge gap between how federal workers and federal leaders see the workplace]

On the issue of poor performers, one reader said the failure of leaders to effectively deal with those not doing their jobs contributes to low morale and creates extra work for everyone else.

“Someone has to follow them around and redo their work or clean up their messes. That's a huge time sink,” the reader wrote.

Another reader said he has had “senior leaders say that it’s not worth the effort to deal with bad performers. What they do is pass them off to other unsuspecting offices or divisions or supervisors.”

“Those who appropriately counsel and coach direct reports who have conduct or performance issues get an EEO complaint against them, which is why supervisors and leaders don't bother,” the reader added.

There is some truth to the claim that it is harder than it should be to deal with a poor performer, but it’s certainly not impossible. There is also little doubt that poor performers can drag down an organization. For leaders, while dealing with problematic employees is difficult and unpleasant, it is a requirement of the job.

Agencies would be smart to provide training and ongoing support to executives around their administrative and performance management responsibilities. Perhaps even more important than the educational piece is the ongoing advice and counsel that executives and frontline leaders need to ensure that they’re following both the letter and the spirit of the regulations put in place.

While much of this responsibility rests with the first-line supervisors, the best executives know that it’s their job to set the right tone around performance, to assist other leaders as they tackle tough employee problems, and to provide support should the situation become confrontational.

These processes are certainly not easy, but I personally know federal leaders who have succeeded in dealing with poor performers – sometimes seeing those employees turn things around, sometimes seeing them depart – and they have lived to tell the tale.

If you have thoughts on these issues, please share them by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Aug 12, 2015 at 2:13 PM

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