By William Wiley, September 7, 2021

Below is an email we received from a FELTG student, lightly edited for space and context, followed by our FELTG answer.


I attended your MSPB Law Week in person last year just before everything was shut down due to COVID. I recall your discussion about performance management, and you made a statement that I swear I wrote down but cannot find in my notes. I was wondering if you might be able to reiterate. You said something along the lines of “Performance vs. conduct is not a matter of can’t do and won’t do.” This can’t vs. won’t is something I was taught as a young ER practitioner some years ago. However, your explanation was MUCH better!

Thanks in advance.

And the response:

Ah, the old “can’t do vs. won’t do.” Has a nice ring to it. The reason that FELTG teaches that this is an incorrect concept is based in law and, unfortunately, the law doesn’t always have a nice catchy rhythm.

If we read the statute that lays out the procedures for taking a performance-based removal (codified at 5 USC 4303), we don’t see anything that speaks to volition. Therefore, the willfulness of an employee’s unacceptable performance is not a matter of law with which we need to be concerned when initiating a performance removal. We don’t have to care whether the employee says, “Boss, I refuse to work that hard” or “Boss, I can’t work that hard.” If the employee is not performing at a level that the supervisor sets as the minimum level of performance, we can initiate a 432-performance action.

Being able to initiate a 432-performance action without concern for can’t v. won’t is important for several reasons:

  • It’s one less case element we have to prove on appeal. It gives the employee one less thing to argue with us about. Reducing arguments is a very desirable outcome.
  • 432-performance actions are a fast, efficient procedure for dealing with a documented non-producing employee. We can initiate a 432 action today by giving the employee a notice that specifies the performance elements being failed, and then propose the employee’s removal 31 days from now if performance does not improve to the minimal level. In contrast, a 752-misconduct action (a reference to 5 USC Chapter 75 adverse action removal procedures) many times involves an initial Reprimand (which might be grieved), followed by a proposed-then-decided Suspension (which also might be grieved), and THEN by an eventual proposed Removal. Those steps invariably take more than 31 days.
  • Separately, performance-based removals need be supported by only substantial evidence, whereas misconduct-based removals must be proven by the higher burden of a preponderance of the evidence. And MSPB cannot mitigate a performance-based removal to something else. No Douglas Factors to worry about. 432-removals are the preferred procedure to deal with problem employees who can’t or don’t do what they are told to do performance-wise.

In addition to all of this, we have to acknowledge that there are exceptions to the concept that can’t-do problems are necessarily addressed via a 432-performance-based action. We routinely use 752-adverse-action procedures to remove employees who can’t do things, e.g.:

  • The employee who can’t come to work because of matters beyond the employee’s control where leave has been approved (Excessive Absence)
  • The employee who has a medical limitation and, thereby, can’t perform an essential job function (Medical Inability to Perform)

I hope you either read one of our earlier FELTG articles and/or attended our webinars that explained that the Federal Circuit recently changed what management is required to do when confronted with a non-performing employee. Previously, we had to prove that the employee was put on notice of on-going unacceptable performance (usually by the supervisor initiating a Demonstration Period, i.e., a DP), and then prove that the employee did not perform acceptably during the DP. Now, we also must prove that the employee was performing unacceptably BEFORE the DP was initiated.

Bottom Line: Assessing whether a problem with an employee is “can’t do or won’t do” is unnecessary and possibly misleading. It’s better just to focus on the outcome when dealing with a poor performer. When it comes to the concept of volition – can’t do vs. won’t do – Master Yoda said it most succinctly, “You must unlearn what you have learned. … Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Hey, if we can’t rely on the wisdom of a little, old, green alien, who can we trust?

Best of luck out there. [email protected]


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