Is Uncle Sam playing the Old Maid card?

During my illustrious (hah!) career I have worked for several employers that had very different policies when it came to firing “problem” employees.

One of the operations fired people all the time. And for a variety of reasons. Usually the memo to the staff just said Employee X was no longer with the company. It was up to us to find out, later, what he or she had done (or not done) to get sacked.

The other place never fired anybody. But turnover was high even though it was a great, prestigious place to work. And the pay was good. So why the revolving door?

We, the survivors, called our company’s firing policy the Old Maid technique. Before you call out the PC Police be advised that Old Maid is an ancient card game. Players use a deck with 49, 51 or 53 cards. Odd numbers for a reason. The “odd” card is the Old Maid. Players draw, and discard cards in pairs. At the end of the game, the last person to have drawn the Old Maid is the loser. In ancient times that meant buying the drinks.

Part of the game is having a poker face.  If you draw the Old Maid card you don’t react, to protect yourself.  If someone draws it from you neither of you reacts to avoid warning the other players where the losing card may be.

A deck of 19-th century Old Maid cards.
A deck of 19th-century Old Maid cards.

What the company would do is one of two things: It might approach the employee and tell him/her they had no future, and to find another job. It was known that they would give the worker they wanted to fire a good reference. Rivals would learn that the employee was on the market, was a “star” and often hire him or her. Thus, getting the media equivalent of the Old Maid card.

The other firing technique was to find out what the “targeted” employee hated or feared most. That person was then assigned duties dealing almost exclusively with his most-feared, most-hated subject and sometimes given a shift that involved late hours, working weekends, or both. Both worked. People quit or were transferred and never went public that they had been fired. Mainly, we figured later, because of pride.

The two programs worked for years until the senior official who ran them — quietly but efficiently — was confronted by an employee who didn’t know the “rules”. He didn’t know he was supposed to fall quietly on his sword. Once it came out, senior officials stopped it and quietly eased him out of his job. Justice was done, if a little late.

Some critics of the federal hiring-firing system say too many agencies are afraid to deal with problem employees. That too many agencies don’t fire enough people.

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Each year about 1.5 percent of the federal workforce is fired. That is low by industry standards. Defenders say the government’s lengthy (generally one year) probationary period permits Uncle Sam to weed out people at the start. Critics say it’s an indicator that too many federal managers lack the guts to fire people who need it.

In a recent interview with Federal News Radio’s Tom Temin, a former top HR fed said the government “does a poor job “of dealing with performance and conduct problems. Jeff Neal, who had been chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, said many managers are simply afraid to tackle problem employees. And that agency lawyers often block firing because they don’t want to take the chance of losing the case on appeal.

Today, companies that play a corporate version of the card game do it with people. When they find they no longer want someone (but don’t want to pay severance or face a lawsuit) they either drive them out, or pawn them off — as in giving the Old Maid playing card — to some other company.

Official government studies have shown that many employees think their agency wimps out when it comes to culling problem employees. So how is it at your shop? Got any good stories or examples? If so, let me know at: mcausey@federal newsradio.com.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Michael O’Connell

A tuffet is a low piece of furniture used as a footstool.

Source: Wikipedia

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