GAO highlights two ways to fire poorly performing feds more easily

To better deal with poorly performing workers, agencies should consider longer probationary periods for new employees and new supervisors, and managers should improve how they measure employee performance.

The Government Accountability Office reported today that out of the almost 3,500 employees who were dismissed from federal service in fiscal 2013, 70 percent were let go during the probationary period and another 21 percent were dismissed under Chapter 75, which states the employee isn’t likely to improve performance despite good faith efforts, including training and the setting of clearer expectations.

GAO stated in its report for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the number of employees dismissed due to poor performance in 2013 was among the fewest since 2006. Seven years earlier, agencies had terminated 3,405. The high water mark of employees fired for performance issues was in 2009 with 4,840.

Auditors found that federal managers lack the training to measure and make performance-based decisions. Often they do not use probationary periods to their advantage to review the performance of new hires.

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“The time and resource commitment needed to remove a poor performing permanent employee can be substantial. It can take six months to a year (and sometimes longer) to dismiss an employee,” GAO said. “According to selected experts and GAO’s literature review, concerns over internal support, lack of performance management training, and legal issues can also reduce a supervisor’s willingness to address poor performance.”

The 2014 Employee Viewpoint Survey found agencies continue to struggle in dealing with poorly performing employees as 42 percent of the respondents disagreed with the statement that steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve in his or her work unit. The survey found 28 percent agreed with that statement and 27 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that agencies need to be more aggressive in how they use probationary periods to root out potentially unqualified employees.

“It is unacceptable that some agencies let the first year slip by without conducting performance reviews, never aware that the probationary period had expired,” Johnson said. “The federal government cannot use tax dollars effectively if it does not hire, train and keep effective supervisors.”

Typically, new employees come under a one-year period when the agency can evaluate their work and decide whether to keep them on permanently.

GAO found that supervisors are often not making performance-related decisions about an individual’s future likelihood of success with the agency during the probationary period.

“Interviewees said this can happen for two reasons: (1) the supervisor may not know that the individual’s probationary period is ending, and (2) the supervisor has not had enough time to observe the individual’s performance in all critical areas of the job,” the report said. “Because of these two possible issues, agencies risk continuing poorly performing individuals in a position in the civil service, with all the rights that such an appointment entails.”

Employees who are dismissed while on probation typically do not have appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board so the termination process happen more quickly.

But a one-year probationary period isn’t long enough to assess a complex job or a project that may take three or five years to complete, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

OPM told GAO that it’s trying to make it easier for managers to know when an employee’s probation is ending. Shared services payroll providers and many agencies’ human resources systems send alerts to managers shortly before the evaluation period ends.

“In the past, agencies exempt from provisions of title 5 have sought to address this by extending the probationary period and limiting appeal rights during that time,” the report said. “Unless exempt however, a decision to allow agencies to extend probationary periods beyond one year and to limit appeal rights during that period would require legislative action in certain circumstances. CHCOs told us such an extension of the probationary period would provide supervisors with time to make a performance assessment for those occupations that are particularly complex or difficult to assess. However, they cautioned that such an extension would only be beneficial if an agency had effective performance management practices in place and it used the extra time for the purpose intended.”

But GAO also found few agencies have solid enough performance-management practices in place.

This long-standing challenge is one reason why OPM and the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations came up with a new approach to performance management called the Goals- Engagement-Accountability-Results (GEAR) framework.

OPM introduced GEAR in 2011 and agencies have been testing it over the last few years.

“In June 2014, OPM officials said that the agency will facilitate the collaboration and information-sharing between agencies on their approaches to implement the principles outlined in the GEAR framework,” the report said. “They added that OPM will continue to provide technical support and expertise on successful practices for performance management.”

GAO made four broad recommendations.

  • Extend the supervisory probationary period beyond one year to include at least one full employee appraisal cycle; provide detail opportunities or rotational assignments to supervisory candidates prior to promotion, where the candidate can develop and demonstrate supervisory competencies; and use a dual career ladder structure as a way to advance employees who may have particular technical skills and/or education but who are not interested in or inclined to pursue a management or supervisory track.
  • To help ensure supervisors obtain the skills needed to effectively conduct performance management responsibilities, assess the adequacy of leadership training that agencies provide to supervisors.
  • For new employees, OPM should educate agencies on the benefits of using automated notifications to notify supervisors that an individual’s probationary period is ending and that the supervisor needs to make an affirmative decision or otherwise take appropriate action, and encourage its use to the extent it is appropriate and cost-effective for the agency; and determine whether there are occupations in which — because of the nature of work and complexity — the probationary period should extend beyond one year to provide supervisors with sufficient time to assess an individual’s performance.
  • To help ensure OPM’s tools and guidance for dealing with poor performers are cost-effectively meeting agencies’ and supervisors’ needs, use Strategic Human Capital Management survey results (once available), Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, Performance Appraisal Assessment Tool responses, and other existing information, as relevant, to inform decisions on content and distribution methods. The importance of effective performance management and addressing poor performance may need to be reinforced with agency supervisors so that they more routinely seek out tools and guidance.

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