Whenever I teach a class to government managers, I pose the following question:
What does the government do with a problem employee?” Immediately, members of the audience answer either, “they move him” or “they promote him.”
Why Not Dealing With Problem Employees Is Not A Solution
The outcome of this commonly held belief is that almost everyone is unhappy –the general public is displeased because they feel its civil servants are virtually untouchable – no matter what they do; many members of the legislative branch are upset because they believe that government employees are not being held accountable; government managers are frustrated because they feel powerless to properly deal with non-performers or people with bad behavior; and the top 90% or so of the government’s workforce is also less than happy because they don’t appreciate working very hard while a co-worker who does not pull his weight, receives the same pay, cost-of-living adjustment, bonus, etc. and sometimes even gets promoted.
In fact, the only people that seem pleased with this arrangement are the bottom 10% of the employees…and why not? They put in the least effort of any group, complain incessantly, and skate by year after year without any consequences. Not bad from their point of view! By the same token, everyone else concludes that the government is not serious about performance. Why? If poor performers are not dealt with, the unspoken message is that whatever they do, their performance is still good enough for government work. In essence, the old cliché becomes the reality – once you have a government job you are untouchable. Meanwhile, the other employees see this; conclude it is not worth extending themselves if poor performance will result in the same consequences, and before you know it, you have an organization that is going downhill.
For example, according to McKinsey, “…case studies and rigorous academic research show that if you want to create and spread excellence, eliminating the negative is the first order of business. Destructive behavior—selfishness, nastiness, fear, laziness, dishonesty—packs a far bigger wallop than constructive behavior.”
What is Dealing With Problem Employees Important?
The commonly held belief is that no one deals with poor employees in government because the system makes it too difficult to hold them accountable. People feel it takes too much time and effort and in the end, nothing will happen anyway, so why should the supervisor waste her time when she has better things to do…like supervising the other employees under her? The problem with this type of thinking is that management gives up before it even tries to deal with the issue.
The mindset becomes since we can’t get rid of the employee, let’s not even waste time trying. If the employee becomes too big of a burden, we’ll simply move him to some unsuspecting supervisor and he will become her problem. As most of you have probably seen, this happens all the time and as a result, people watching this charade conclude there is no discipline; no accountability; and that excellence is not valued. The real issue here is not the system; although admittedly, most governments’ personnel systems can be rigid and hard to navigate. The real problem is government managers who have neither the will nor the skill to deal with problem employees.
If managers begin dealing with their problem employees in a fair, firm and prompt manner, it would send a powerful message that would resonate throughout government. People would see there is accountability, there are consequences for poor performance/behavior and excellence is valued. Naturally, in the short term, there will be some pain, as you are likely to have a pushback from both the employees and their representatives – but that is to be expected and is the cost of making positive changes. However, if you withstand the first wave and hold your ground, while treating your employees fairly and equitably, everyone will get the message you are serious and you will be on your way to changing the culture and improving your organization.
So, the next time a problem employee comes to your attention; resist the urge to move him. Take a different approach – deal with him and you will be glad you did.
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About Stewart Liff Stewart Liff is an HR and visual performance management expert and leading author on managing and transforming government agencies, as well as president of Stewart Liff & Associates. He is also the author of a new book 98 Opportunities for Improving Management in Government, as well as Managing Government Employees and co-author of A Team of Leader and Seeing is Believing