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 skills.
The first practice falls under the category of coddling an employee who can’t 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, 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: (1) cheating yourself out of a valuable position (few of us have “extra” positions that we can spare these days), (2) creating animosity amongst coworkers who are quick to notice if someone is not pulling their load, (3) overburdening someone (you or someone else) who has to take up the slack for this person, (4) leaving important work undone, (5) cheating the person who is not performing by allowing them to think they are adequate, and (6) 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. I’m 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, let’s 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 employee’s work is during their probationary period. In most organizations, the rules for dismissal are far more relaxed than at any other time in the employee’s 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, but I refer you back to my blog on performance evaluations for additional information. 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.
Why not promote?
The second bad practice is 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 managerial 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 supervisory position 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 doesn’t necessarily make anyone ready for management; it just means they have been around a long time--period. In fact, the most senior people can be the ones being propped up by others. Now isn’t that a double whammy?
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 don’t 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 else’s mess, I channel all my strength and good will to you--you’ll need it. But what you are doing is so very important and worth it in the long run. Don’t give up hope and know that it is possible to succeed in the end.