By William Wiley, November 15, 2017

Questions, we get questions. Some make us laugh, some make us think, and some – like this one – just make us sad. I’ll bet that there are a lot of federal supervisors who can relate to this tale of woe from one of our loyal readers:

Dearest Beloved FELTG-

I really enjoy reading this newsletter and I often get re-energized thinking that if I’m following the law (I’m not a lawyer) and the rules, I should be able to discipline and remove poor performers.  But in the real world, in my experience anyway, the poor performer files EEO, hires an attorney, our HR staff takes forever to provide timely feedback (I know they are swamped, this is not intended to slam them), and then there is a settlement.  Upper management has determined it takes too much time to do it again when he knows we’ll lose again, despite how solid our case(s) have been.

Frustrated in Chicago

And our FELTG edgy response:

Dear Frustrated –

Ah, the challenges of running the federal government. Here’s an analogy that might help.

Suppose you’re playing basketball. The other team scores, and the referee gives you the ball. Do you stand frozen out of fear that the other team might try to block your in-bound pass? Once you get the ball in play, do you stay in your end of the court because if you go toward the other basket, one of those big mean players on the other team might try to get in your way, to steal the ball from you? Do you refuse to move because you’re thirsty and your team’s water-person is slow in getting you a drink?

NO! You throw the ball into play, move under the other basket as fast as you can, and take your lumps when you shoot a jump shot right in the face of the defensive player. There’ll be plenty of time to down some refreshments once the game is over. Perhaps you’ll want to think about getting yourself a new water-person because this one isn’t helping you out when you need it.

But you don’t play basketball; you supervise a chunk of the federal work force. In fact, you’re being paid extra money to perform that oversight function, to hold employees accountable for the work that they do (or, don’t do). So, do you hide under your desk when an employee files an EEO complaint against you? NO! Only 1.5 EEO complaints out of every 100 results in a finding of discrimination. Are you afraid of his attorney? NO! They might throw around a bunch of legalese and huff and puff, but the law is on your side. Always keep this in mind: Congress created the law way back in 1978 so that you could easily fire a bad performer. Your agency has its own huffing and puffing attorneys to defend you if there’s any lawyering that needs to be done. Common sense and the law almost always prevail.

What about your HR department taking a long time to get back to you? Well, if they did a decent job of training you, their desks wouldn’t be so swamped. If you have been around long enough to remember the government’s attempt to implement Total Quality Management back in the late ’80s, you might remember that TQM organizations save money by reducing inspections. They set up procedures to get it done properly the first time. Your HR staff would be highly functioning if they set up training and software to help you draft performance documents yourself. Then, you can initiate your own unacceptable performance removals, copying HR after the fact in case they see something they need to help you correct.

Separately, you might want to think about getting your HR and legal advice elsewhere (find a new water-person).  If they are not providing the timely assistance you need, that’s a management problem just waiting to be corrected, just as it would be if you had a non-performing contractor. Here at FELTG, we can knock out a PIP initiation letter in about 45 minutes; a proposed removal for failing a PIP in less than an hour. When you think how much money it is costing the government to pay someone who is a non-performer, you begin to appreciate the old adage “time is of the essence.”

And finally, if upper management knows that you’ll “lose again,” it is not basing that conclusion on facts. Yes, the other team will score every now and then, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be playing the game. Managers who decline to hold employees accountable out of fear of EEO complaints should do us all a favor and quit. We need better managers in government, managers who understand the game of employee accountability. If you can’t get them to change their minds, the best advice I can give is to find another job, one where upper management appreciates the role you have as a front-line supervisor, and who isn’t afraid to do the job he’s being paid to do.

I realize that here at FELTG, we can get a little preachy. Sometimes when I write a piece or teach a class, after the fact I’ll realize that I come across as a grumpy old man. Well, I am both old and grumpy. I earned the old by having a lot of birthdays. And I’ve earned my grumpy by hearing stories like this from supervisors in government during my 40 years in the business.

Look. If you’re unhappy because “they” won’t let you do your job, then fix your happy. Work around them, ignore them, or find another job where you can get the support you need. Life’s too short to waste it complaining about how bad things are. Fix them or move on.

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