Performance Management, Civil Service, & Merit Principles: Discussions Must Be Guided with Sober, Detailed Research and Commitment to Fair & Equitable Treatment; Management Abuse of Authority Must Also Be Addressed

All discussions of performance management within the federal government’s civil service must be done with in-depth, sober, and detailed research and analysis in order to ensure that any system proposed

  • is faithful with the merit principles and all laws of the United States of America,
  • fair and equitable to all those who are subject to the system, and
  • addresses management abuse of authority toward subordinates.

Moreover, vague mentions of “poor performers” must be avoided and replaced with substantiated and detailed examples.

The focus of the Government Executive article, “Wielding the Ax,” seems to be based on the “trials” of the manager trying to fire an undefined “poor performer.” Yet, the article merely passes over a tremendous problem identified by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB): The managers cannot identify proper standards. (Emphasis, added, mine.)

In a 2009 report (quote is from the press release), MSPB said that complexities involved in performance management—not the law—present the greatest challenge to handling poor performers. “The agency is required to articulate a performance expectation, measure it and document the extent to which the employee has failed to meet expectations,” said the report. “According to an MSPB survey of proposing and deciding officials, this is where the actions become difficult. Our survey respondents told us that supervisors have difficulty creating standards for performance and documenting how well employees are meeting those standards.”

If management cannot identify standards, how can they rate performance? Lacking standards, it seems that managers are rating on whim, a situation that is unfair to employees.

The managers cited in the Government Executive article seemed to be focused on removal rather than coaching proper performance. Moreover, both managers cited are no longer with their government agencies. [John Palguta, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Palguta also has worked at the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board, the agency that adjudicates appeals from employees related to their job status. Henry Romero, who was associate director for workforce compensation and performance at OPM during the Clinton administration and was reported to be a senior adviser at Virginia-based consulting firm Federal Management Partners.]

In addition, and in fairness, the issue of managerial abuse of power toward subordinates must also be considered in any discussion of performance management. There are very few avenues for redress for suffering employees (especially if the avenues of redress–human relations, EEO, upper-level agency management–agree with or do not care about the employee’s suffering of abuse). Strengthening managerial power to discipline or remove–with severe financial consequences to the affected employee–without considering the plight of these affected persons would be a tremendous injustice.

Moreover, the discussion of performance management flies off in a tangent upon mention of “poor performers.” Yet, this mention of poor performer is not substantiated with clear, specific definitions or examples. The discussion will be best served with serious and detailed research and analysis identifying all of the issues from all viewpoints and with pinpointed, transparent, fair, and equitable solutions.