By William Wiley, September 13, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was holding forth in a seminar of supervisors about one of the big secrets in our business. Learn the minimum and focus on that when confronted with a problem employee. With this philosophy of accountability, you’ll get the job done more quickly, with fewer grievances and complaints, and have less chance to mess things up. In application of that philosophy, the smart supervisor will avoid using legally useless tools like cautions, warnings, and admonishments. Instead, if you have a problem employee, and you’re ready to do anything, cut to the chase and issue a Reprimand to try to correct the misbehavior.

If you want to go from DC to Baltimore, you get on I-95 and drive north. You can also go from DC to Baltimore by leaving DC, driving to West Virginia, up through Pittsburgh, to Buffalo, back to Philadelphia, and then to Baltimore from the north. But why would you waste all that time, risk a lot more accidents, and spend a lot more money when you can just get on I-95 North? The same with accountability. When you’re ready to do something, move straight to a Reprimand, then a Suspension, and finally a Removal (Baltimore). Life’s too short to dilly-dally.

After explaining the principle of “avoiding the yellow donut” and going straight to the tools that work, I got a little push back from one of the class attendees. A lady in the front row – obviously smart and wanting to do a good job as a supervisor – asked why I would suggest avoiding letters of warning, caution, and admonishment. “Isn’t it our job to work with employees? To try to get them to be successful? Isn’t it a supervisor’s responsibility to take time develop his employees rather than just go straight toward removal if he isn’t working out?”

When she said that, I was reminded of little league baseball. If your son or daughter has participated in little league sports recently, you’re familiar with how they work. Everybody gets to play. Everybody gets a turn at bat. At the end of the season, everybody gets a certificate of accomplishment. The coach’s job is to help each player to rise to the level of his or her potential. Winning is not as important as playing.

Compare that to the big leagues, “The Show” as they sometimes call it in baseball. Players compete for the privilege of playing. Coaches coach, but they also are strong evaluators. If a player turns out not to be very good after being given a period of time to demonstrate performance, he’s cut from the team and another individual is given a chance to bat.

With all respect, the class participant who wanted to emphasize developmental efforts rather than accountability tools is taking the little league approach to federal supervision. Taking lots of time to work with individuals, holding their hand as they try to do their job, avoiding the tools of accountability … that’s all good when the goal of the endeavor is to develop individual kids to play the game as best they can. But that’s not the goal of a federal agency. Ours is not a place where people get hired so they can have a job (can play a position).

Ours is a workplace where people get hired and continue to be paid because they successfully contribute to the productivity of the government. At least it’s supposed to be run that way. Sure, you may want to coach employees so that they can do the best they can do. But if their best is not good enough, whether you coach them or not, remember that your primary responsibility as a federal manager is to run your part of the agency efficiently. If Congress had wanted it to be otherwise, there would be laws that say, “Removal is to be avoided,” or “Individuals should be retained as employees if they are working really hard and to the best of their ability.”

I checked. There are no laws that say that. In fact, the law that says what you are to do as a federal supervisor has been in place for 40 years. You are to 1) give the employee expectations (“Get a hit!”),  2) give the employee a chance to meet those expectations (“Wiley, you’re batting fourth.”), then 3) fire the employee if he strikes out. 5 USC 4302.(b)(1) and (6).

Welcome to the big leagues, my friend. Yours is not a little league government agency. You’re in the pros now. Cuts are allowed here, even mandatory if you know the law. Everyone doesn’t get to be a federal civil servant. Only the best of the best are supposed to be playing in this game. As Slider said to Maverick and Goose in Top Gun, “Remember, boys, no points for second place.”

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