By William Wiley, August 30, 2022

Sometimes an MSPB decision that identifies itself as nonprecedential is still an important decision. That’s especially true in times like these when we have three relatively new members of the Board who are being called on to reconsider established practices of Federal employment law, practices that they have not personally been called on to address before.

A good example of this is the Board’s Final Order in Feesago v. DoD, SF-0432-16-0458-I-1 (August 10, 2022) (NP). When analyzing the appeal of that relatively straightforward 432 unacceptable performance action, the members applied an important principle we have taught here at FELTG for over two decades:

The supervisor MUST tell the employee EXACTLY what level of performance he must attain during the PIP to avoid removal from his position.

In Feesago, the PIP initiation memo told the employee that she would be held accountable for mistakes in her performance in each of four critical elements. However, it failed to tell her how many mistakes she would have to make to be deemed to have failed to meet the standards for two of the critical elements. Therefore, the PIP was invalid for those critical elements.

The cure for this removal-reversing defect that we have incorporated into every PIP initiation memo that we have ever written here at FELTG is this: “During the PIP, you must not make more than three errors relative to this critical element or I will consider you to be performing at the Unacceptable level and thereby subject to removal from your position.”

By the way, I once had an agency attorney try to tell me that the above is an invalid “backwards” standard because it tells the employee what he cannot do rather than what he must do to be performing acceptably. Well, that’s an attorney who has not read the case law very carefully and has not applied common sense to the situation.

A Minimal performance standard (Level 2) is backwards and invalid if it does not clarify where the Unacceptable performance level is, e.g., the agency will lose the appeal if the PIP initiation memo tells the employee that the Minimal standard is “must not make more than three errors.” However, it’s perfectly fine (and according to Feesago, EXPECTED) that you will tell the employee that the acceptable level of performance is “must not make more than three errors.”

Relatedly, several years ago I overheard an Employee Relations specialist tell a supervisor that she should NOT tell the employee how many errors he was making during the PIP that would be counted toward evaluating the minimal level of acceptable performance. I guess that the ER specialist was concerned that if the employee were to be told that he had already exceeded the maximum error level early in the PIP, it would somehow undermine the PIP as “predetermined,” or the employee’s morale would suffer, or whatever. Well, that’s just wrong and a reversible error under the same principle that caused the loss of two critical elements in Feesago.

Of course, the employee should be told how he is doing during the PIP. How can he otherwise know if he is improving or continuing to fail? If you tell the employee that the minimal level of performance is “no more than three errors,” and the employee makes one or two errors during the first week of the PIP and then another couple of errors during the second week, he should be told. If you don’t, the Board will conclude that he has not been given a “reasonable opportunity to improve.”

But what about “morale”? What about “predetermined”? Aren’t those valid concerns? No, they are not. Nothing in law or common sense says that the agency must continue a PIP beyond the point of demonstrated failure. Think about it for a minute. When the supervisor sets a minimum level of acceptable performance in the PIP memo, he is saying that an employee who fails to meet that level is unacceptable and should be removed from the position. If the employee has more than the maximum-allowable errors during the first couple of weeks of a PIP, and the supervisor continues to allow the employee to stay in the position where he can make even more errors after that, doing so undermines the supervisor’s PIP-initiating statement relative to what constitutes Unacceptable performance. The employee cannot undo the early PIP errors by acceptable performance after the point of unacceptability. In this situation, an in-the-know supervisor will end the PIP early and propose that the employee be removed from the position at the moment of failure rather than wait until the PIP expires.

Sadly, here at FELTG we know that there is a fair amount of incorrect advice out there relative to taking unacceptable performance actions. What if the employee has exceeded the maximum number of tolerable errors during the PIP, but the HR/legal advisor erroneously tells the supervisor that the PIP cannot be ended early? How should the supervisor respond if the employee says, “Hey, boss, I’ve already failed. Why should I keep trying? Why are you keeping me on the job?” Easy, if true; the supervisor can say, “Yes, it looks like I’ll have to initiate action to remove you from your position at the end of the PIP because you’ve already failed the performance standard. I’ll continue to observe your performance during the remainder of the PIP so I can decide whether the action I take will be a termination, demotion, or reassignment.” Of course, if demotion and reassignment are not options, the supervisor should not lie. And, of course, the advisor should not be giving bad advice. Federal workplace law is filled with rocks and corresponding hard places for the uninformed.

Although two of the critical elements in Feesago were dismissed as invalid, there were two other critical elements that also formed the basis for the action on appeal. Unfortunately, during the PIP the supervisor did not provide adequate feedback to the employee as to how she was performing under these two valid standards, thereby violating the employee’s right to “a reasonable opportunity to improve her performance.” In the PIP initiation memo, the supervisor (in over-simplification) told the employee, “You are making errors relative to the critical element of Customer Care by doing X.” Then, during the PIP, the supervisor considered Y and Z to be examples of deficient Customer Service performance but did not tell the employee. In finding this oversight to be a critical deficiency in the action, the Board said, “the record does not reflect that any of these issues were ever mentioned to the appellant in the PIP discussions.”

If you are an HR specialist, attorney, or supervisor (or union representative, because we love you guys, too) involved in performance-based actions with unacceptably performing employees, it will be well worth your time to read Feesago from beginning to end. The new Board’s analysis throughout that decision is replete with old-school hints and helpful takeaways relative to how to (or not to) craft a performance-based action. I particularly liked the section where the agency seemed to fault the employee for granting bereavement leave so that a subordinate could make funeral arrangements for his grandmother. Board members have grandmothers, too.

Or you could just sign up to attend FELTG’s next MSPB Law Week seminar September 12-16 or UnCivil Servant September 7-8 and learn about this and all the other principles and best practices to employee accountability. This stuff is not hard IF you’ve been to the training.

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