By William Wiley, October 4, 2017

I think that just about everyone at one time or another has painted a room, or perhaps hired someone to paint a room for them. Not as easy as it looks, if you’ve had this experience. And a mess to clean up if you make mistakes.

So let’s say you have a 10-bedroom house, a typical size home for you highly-paid civil servants. You’re busy running the government every day, so you jump on Task Rabbit or some other handyman service, and hire yourself a by-the-hour painter. The guy shows up, has the credentials and experience to do the job, so you turn him loose. You tell him how you want things done: No paint on anything, but the walls. The painter has brought the flat white paint you asked for, so you leave him to do the first room while you go to your highly important desk in that highly important federal agency.

When you return that evening, the painter has finished the work on the first room. He’s left a bill for eight hours of work, which is about what you expected. But the quality of the paint job is not. The face-plates are plastered to the wall with paint. The window glass has ragged edges. The floor has white speckles where it is not supposed to have any speckles. The guy did a bad job.

Pop Quiz No. 1: What will you do when the guy shows up tomorrow morning to start on the second room?

A. Fire him.

B. Give him a second chance.

Yeah, I’d fire the guy, too. Life’s short. Paint’s expensive. There are lots of potential painters on Task Rabbit. Find yourself a painter who can follow instructions.

But wait! Your roommate (husband, wife, whatever) is more forgiving than are you. She implores that you give the dude a second chance; an opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance. As your roommate is paying for half of the paint job, and as it is her week to do the cooking, you decide to go along with her suggestion in the interest of peace and harmony, and edible dinners.

So when the guy shows up on Day Two for room number two, you reinforce your very specific instructions: face-plates removed from the electrical outlets, masking tape on the glass, and the entire floor covered in tarps. You tell him if he continues to mess up, to fail to demonstrate acceptable performance, you will fire him. Then, you take off for your spare bedroom as you are working flexiplace today.

At noon on your lunch break, you wander down the hall to see how he’s doing on room number two. Sadly, the outcome is no better than yesterday. One of the windows is completely obliterated with paint. The light switch as well as the face-plate is covered in paint. The speckles on the floor today are pink because he brought the wrong color paint. Pop Quiz Question No. 2: What will you do?

A. Fire him. End the misery. Save yourself four hours of pay. He has failed to demonstrate acceptable performance.

B. Let him finish painting room number two, then fire him.

C. Reconsider your original decision to have only one room in which to demonstrate acceptable performance, advise him he can have not one, but a three-room opportunity period, then wait to see how he does after three more rooms.

I have to believe that most rational people would have fired this guy after the first day. If convinced to give him another chance by a soft-hearted roommate, I have to believe that most people would have fired him at noon the second day. Why waste unnecessary money on somebody who cannot do his job? Why put yourself in a position of a) not getting work done that needs to be done, and b) giving yourself a bigger and bigger mess to clean up once it’s all over? Some may come to different conclusions, but I think that most readers would pick A. and A. for our two pop quizzes.

So why in the world do too many practitioners not take this same approach to PIPing a poorly performing federal employee? Here’s what the law has said for nearly 40 years about how a federal supervisor should deal with unacceptable performance:

5 USC 4302(b)(6): Reassign, reduce in grade, or remove employees who continue to have unacceptable performance but only after an opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance.

The law is like your soft-hearted roommate. It won’t let you fire the employee the first time you find poor performance. Beyond that, though, it gives the supervisor significant flexibility to do what needs to be done during the demonstration period. Unfortunately, here at FELTG we run into practitioners all the time who advise supervisors to paint several rooms before firing the bad handyman (e.g., 60, 90, and 120-day PIPs) or insist that the supervisor allow the employee to complete the PIP even if they fail it early (e.g., finish painting everything in the room pink).

Folks, it is rare to find a federal law that doesn’t make sense. It is a nonsensical interpretation of this particular federal law if you believe it means that employees have to be given several months to demonstrate acceptable performance or given the opportunity to finish a PIP if they fail the PIP early. Interpret legal requirements rationally, as you would act in the real world outside the civil service workplace. Even you softies out there would not give a bad painter excessive opportunities to demonstrate acceptable painting ability. There is no excuse for not acting as rationally when you advise a supervisor who supervises a non-performer.

Be brave. Be rational. Advise supervisors to use 30 day PIPs and fire the guy if he demonstrates failure early. If you don’t, we’ll send one of our poorly-trained but highly-motivated FELTG handymen to your office and paint the place pink. That should remind you to be strong.

Of course, if your office already is painted pink, we are jealous. Because we think that pink is a just dandy color for some federal agencies. [email protected]

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