Ask The Lawyer

By Debra Roth

Act quickly when dealing with poor performers

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The underperforming employee is a common personnel issue facing federal managers. When a bad attitude accompanies poor performance, the employee becomes the one everyone wants to avoid, particularly the manager.

These traits usually result in an employee who believes he can “negotiate” what work assignment he’ll do and by when he’ll get it accomplished.

Sometimes, it’s simply passive resistance to work assignments and all kinds of excuses for why the work didn’t get done: “I forgot,” “I didn’t understand what you meant,” “I’m still working on it.”

Sometimes the failure to perform a work assignment is an outright refusal, accompanied by a statement akin to “it’s not in my position description.”

But failure by an employee to regularly and satisfactorily perform his or her job duties can create workplace issues that go beyond the time-consuming managerial task of addressing underperformance.

For example, when a workplace has one employee who has mastered the art of avoiding work assignments, another employee usually has to pick up the task.

Welcome to the beginning of employee morale problems. While your office may have the eager employee who is willing to go the extra distance for the team, the long-term effect of allowing one employee to slack off is the resentment that builds up in other employees.

In the federal workplace, resentment can lead to otherwise productive employees filing complaints about having to do someone else’s job. Those complaints can result in a decision by upper management to order a workplace assessment or review, which invariably backfires on the first-line manager, who has not dealt with the underperforming employee.

Federal employees have individual position descriptions and performance work plans. The tendency in some federal workplaces is to view those documents rigidly as the outer parameters of what is required on the job.

But every position description should include a phrase that requires the employee to perform “other tasks as assigned.” Even in the absence of that language, federal employees are required to perform a task as long as it is not illegal, immoral or a danger to the employee or others — even an assignment that belongs to someone else.

So, the manager should deal early, often and directly with the underperforming subordinate. When the employee fails to follow instructions about when and how to do a particular assignment, communicate the failure directly to the employee, follow up with a brief note to your supervisor file about the incident, and brief HR to determine whether the employee should be counseled, admonished or progressively disciplined.

Yes, disciplinary action. Many federal employees incorrectly believe that performance deficiencies, including failure to perform a job assignment, can be addressed only in the performance appraisal process. The typical disciplinary charge for this type of non-performance is “failure to perform a work assignment” or “failure to follow instructions.” And if the failure to do the work is accompanied by a bad attitude, agencies frequently include a disciplinary charge such as “disrespectful behavior” to address the attitude.

If you suspect an employee isn’t getting the job done because of a drug or alcohol dependency issue or a medical condition, you still have to address the underperformance.

If an employee has a pattern of tardiness, absences and inattention to duties that you believe may be related to drug or alcohol dependency or a medical condition, then report this immediately to your HR staff for assistance in how to address the performance-related issues, and in how to refer the employee to your agency’s Employee Assistance Program.

The employee who slacks off isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a personnel and management issue in federal and private-sector workforces. It brings with it the challenge for management to get the mission accomplished while still dealing with the poor performer.

Comments

  1. jethro tull Says:
    April 6th, 2010 at 6:51 am

    the postal service is full of poor performers.the clerk craft is the worse and the carriers have to do the work so they can get it out.yhey stop work when they want eventhough the job isnt finished and the cariers are waiting to case it up and get to the streets.we have carriers that dont care and let that mail stackup because theydont get it in time.management doesnt want to adress these individual because they fear EEO complaints.the union has to defend these people or be found guilty of not defending them by the national labor board and sued for non representation. fire these people and let them fight to get their jobs back with backpay is what will happen. poor training in management and failing to identify these problems when the hiring process begins. instead of 90 days try two years probationary period. firing any time in that period and no participating in the union until the 2 years is up.these problem occur ussually when they get their 90 days and part time regular status. the last 20 years the neputism has been the greatest and I know of whole failies being hired through the manament downtown and the investigation by the OIG should hold them accountable.