Lately, I have been thinking about a couple of management
practices that seem (based on my experience of more than 18 years in
government) to occur more frequently in government settings and to have
significant detrimental effects on employees and the organization. The first
one is keeping underperforming employees around when they should be let go, and
the second one is promoting a good employee into management just because they
"deserve" it, whether or not they actually have adequate management
The first practice falls under the category of coddling an
employee who cant quite cut it. Unable to let someone go, a manager keeps problem
employees around by propping them up with support systems and other people.
Why is this so bad and how do you avoid it? Here's the
situation: You hire a person to perform a function because you as a manager in
the organization have a need that must be met. Provided that you give the
person clear directions regarding the work to be performed, give them the right
tools and the power to perform the task—you should have every expectation that this person will accomplish
tasks in a timely fashion and with a level of quality that is satisfactory. If
the person cannot perform the tasks adequately and you have met your own
responsibilities toward them, should you not let them go?
If your answer is NO you are: (A) cheating yourself out of a
valuable position (few of us have extra positions that we can spare these
days), (B) creating animosity amongst co-workers who are quick to notice if
someone is not pulling their load, (C) overburdening someone (you or someone
else) who has to take up the slack for this person, (D) leaving important work undone,
(E) cheating the person who is not performing by allowing them to think they
are adequate, and (F) leaving a mess for your successor to have to deal with
once you are gone.
All of these results are clearly bad things for a manager or
supervisor to deal with, yet the practice seems quite commonplace. Why? There
are probably a number of reasons—some political, some not. But I believe the
main reason is that no one likes being the bad guy or girl, and there is a
whole stigma regarding firing (oh my gosh—I said the F word!).
First and foremost, terminating an employee is unpleasant
for most supervisors. Im not talking about layoffs—which are also unpleasant—but
specifically about firing someone due to poor performance, which seems more
personal. Obviously, it is hard on the employee—no one likes being let go;
however, it is quite burdensome on managers as well. Often they internalize the
whole process and blame themselves for the employee, or are guilt ridden because
the person has to support himself or has a family to feed, etc. Also, many
supervisors are conflict averse, and would rather let things fester than have
to deal with it.
All of the factors above and the notion, in many
organizations, that firing is always a BAD thing and should be avoided at all
costs result in a culture where poor performance is the norm and a select few
carry the entire load for a section or department.
Now that we know why this is a bad practice, lets talk
about how to avoid doing it in the first place. First and foremost you have to
dismiss the idea that firing an employee is a bad thing. In fact, it is your obligation
as a manager to make sure that people who do not perform are let go; otherwise,
you are doing a huge disservice to yourself, the employee, their coworkers, and
the organization. As long as you have done your part in helping that employee
to be successful in the job, there should be no shame, guilt, or stigma in
doing your job.
Now, before you start saying "but " let me add a
few things. THE ideal time to be scrutinizing an employees work is during
their probationary period. In most organizations, the rules for dismissal are
far more relaxed than at any other time in the employees career within your
organization. You need to make extra darn sure that YOU DO NOT keep them past
their probation if there is any indication that they are struggling or
marginal. I do not care how long it took you to fill the position in the first
place or whether you may lose the slot or not—you should not keep someone on
that is not cutting it during probation. Most organizations have ways of
extending the probation period should you need to do so.
Once they are past their probationary period, as you know,
things are tougher. You need to be VERY proactive and you need to document your
rear end off. For all of you out there saying that it is impossible to let
someone go once they are entrenched in government, I say baloney! It just means
you have to work much harder to get to the point of dismissal and to make it
stick. But let me tell you from first hand experience it is worth all the time and effort that you have to put into it.
This is a huge subject and I could write for days about it. It is not a fun subject, but having
your employees meet their responsibilities is one of the most important things
you are obligated to do as a supervisor.
The second topic that I mentioned at the start of this piece
is the bad practice of promoting or reclassifying a person into a managerial
position in order to get them a raise. Just because a person is doing well at
their job does not necessarily make them good manager material. In fact, I have
seen this happen not because a person is considered particularly good, but
because they happen to have been around a long time. Oh I cringe even typing
that. This practice is the worst of all.
People should be promoted to a supervisor based on their
ability to perform well in a management capacity not just because they can do
their current task well or have seniority. Having the most seniority doesnt
necessarily make anyone ready for management; it just means they have been
around a long time—period. In fact, they could be one of the people being
propped up by others who end up being most senior. Now isnt that a double
You must take great care in promotions/reclassifications
into supervisory positions. After all, these employees will be setting the tone
for their subordinates. You can quickly fill your organization with less than
stellar management, which in turn affects everything.
This is particularly important in a support service such as
IT, where poor performance and bad management can have a dramatic effect on the
rest of the organization.
So, if you are ever tempted to do either of the above—for
whatever reasons—please dont do it. Someone will pay for it, whether it is
now or later. And if you are currently in the position of having to clean up
someone elses mess, I channel all my strength and good will to you—youll
need it. But what you are doing is so very important and worth it in the long
run. Dont give up hope and know that it is possible to succeed in the end.