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Performance Counseling Guidance

Pre-Counseling Actions

Dealing with an employee who cannot perform is one of the toughest jobs you will ever encounter as a supervisor. When it is time to sit down with someone and tell them that their ability is inadequate, your first reaction may be to find a different pressing engagement elsewhere. Perhaps it is due to the personal nature of the tasking – your addressing a very personal subject that may reflect on the person’s worth and ability. Everyone hates doing it. While no one likes the job, somebody has to do it because it’s the best thing for all parties involved. Nothing saps morale more, and more quickly, than an employee who isn’t pulling their own weight. As with any difficult undertaking, the best way to deal with the problem is to break it down into a series of steps that you can tackle one at a time.

This document will address a number of pre-formal actions that can be helpful for supervisors who are undertaking performance related actions. The discussion will primarily center on how to conduct proper performance counseling and taking subsequent follow up actions; these are critical aspects of correcting inadequate performance that unfortunately are rarely accomplished in a proper and timely manner. Before we address the subject of actual performance counseling, let’s take a minute to discuss how to determine who is, in fact, responsible for the performance problem.

Before you sit down with the employee, you should have sorted out what the problem is and have isolated it. You should also have decided whether the problem is one you can live with or not (not every employee can do everything perfectly). However, one of the main reasons you want to first analyze the problem is to determine who is primarily at fault for the deficiency. Many performance problems may be caused by management as a consequence of poor training or instruction, by providing no consequences for doing poor work through inadequate or no feedback, or from organizational barriers (something that is preventing the employee from doing the job properly; the barrier might be a person, a system, or lack of proper tools to do the job).

Management, and not the employee, is at fault if it has not trained or provided proper instruction on how to do the job properly. Management is also to blame if it has not been providing the proper performance feedback in a timely manner (for example, it is not timely performance feedback to provide only an end-of-the-year performance appraisal with a poor rating).

If you have adequately addressed performance concerns throughout the performance rating cycle, then you can be reasonably sure that the problem rests with the employee, not you. Either the employee cannot perform or the employee will not perform. Regardless of the reason, you must handle the situation through a series of increasing strident and serious measures designed to do one of a number of things: Light a fire under the employee who will not perform, persuade the employee who cannot do the job to make a career change, or build a case for the removal or demotion of those who do not shape up or leave.

The majority of your work will be through the medium of the counseling session. The purpose of performance counseling is to wake up employees by telling them that they are failing by showing them what they are doing wrong and laying out the consequences if they do not improve their performance.

A final word before we start. Be sure the problem you are dealing with is, in fact, a performance problem and not a conduct problem. In the federal government, we handle performance and conduct problems differently. In essence, you want to handle a conduct problem (e.g., insubordination, absences without leave, etc.) by taking immediate disciplinary measures. If in doubt on this issue, contact your servicing Human Resources Offices for assistance.

Performance Counseling Session

  • Start by getting right to the point by saying something like: "John/Mary, I’ve called you in to discuss your inability to meet your assigned suspense dates. As you well know, we have discussed this shortcoming earlier... I now want to share my concern with you and to discuss exactly how we shall remedy this deficiency.”
  • Inform the employee:
    • Why they are meeting with you
    • What you intend to cover in the meeting
    • What you expect the employee to do
  • You are not having a meeting to discover any deficiencies, you know them already. Also don’t get distracted by the employee’s defensiveness (most likely, the employee will get defensive during a counseling session); employees may create numerous excuses for not doing what you expect them to do. On the other hand, if during the counseling session the employee raises a legitimate reason for not performing (e.g., lack of training, organizational barrier, too much work, etc.) do take time to address that factor. See additional comments below for more information on dealing with employee excuses for not performing.
  • During the counseling session, give SPECIFIC facts about deficiencies. Don’t talk in generalities or use general terms like “there is a problem with the timeliness of your work.” Instead say something like: “On X date, you were tasked to complete the Jones project. You failed to meet the suspense or to provide me with a valid reason for not completing the project on time.” Don’t hold back; lay out all of your documented deficiencies.
  • Link deficiencies to specific performance standards.Tell the employee that if you were required to make a decision at this time, they would be failing a given standard. If the deficiency isn’t related to a specific standard, ask yourself, “Is this problem really a problem? ”What is the consequence of failing to meet this expectation? If it is significant, then you need to ensure you have a performance standard in the employee’s performance plan addressing this expectation.
  • Put the employee’s deficiencies into context. Describe the consequences of continued failure to meet the performance standard(s) (e.g., unsatisfactory appraisal, delayed/denied pay increases, formal action such as change to lower grade or removal, etc.). Provide such context in a coaching and non-threatening manner.
  • Tell the employee exactly what improvement you expect and provide a specific time frame for improvement. For example:
  • During the next three weeks, I want to see you meet all suspense dates assigned to you. Furthermore, I am going to closely monitor this performance standard for compliance.”
  • Close out the session by informing the employee what results you expect and the time frame you expect these results to be met.

“John/Mary, I’m going to monitor the timeliness of your next five suspense dates. I want the assignments submitted within the established suspense date with no more than one assignment being up to three days late unless you get an extension from me at least three days before the suspense due date. Further, be advised that I only intend to grant you an extension if you can show me compelling reasons that prevent you from meeting the due date(s).”

Post-Counseling Actions

Put it in writing! This should be obvious. Make sure you follow up with a counseling letter that covers all the key points. In fact, you may have the letter prepared in advance so you can give it to the employee at the end of the session. You should consult with your servicing HR Office prior to conducting such counseling sessions and to seek guidance in preparing written documentation for such sessions. Additionally, see the attachment at the end of this document for a sample counseling memorandum.

Comments on Employee Defenses

A major part of your counseling session may be spent dealing with employee excuses, rationalizations, and justifications for not doing what you expect them to do. While this discussion is not intended to be an all encompassing guide on this topic, a few of the more common excuses will be addresses so you can be prepared to handle them.

Too much work. Simple enough. Have the employee document their workload for you. This is a case where the best defense is a good offense. You will usually find that instead of being overworked, it’s usually a question of the employee wasting time, being too slow or simply being disorganized.

Lack of training. Ask yourself, is this a skill that you expected the employee to already have when they started working? If not and the work/job expectations have changed, the employee may have a valid excuse and you need to see that they get the necessary training.

Personal problems. What the person wants you to do is to overlook the poor performance while they are getting their life together. And your first instinct, of course, is to excuse poor performance because you may want to demonstrate compassion for the employee’s situation. First, look at two factors before making any decision on how far to empathize with an employee’s personal problems:

  • How long will the problem last?
  • Is the performance at least within acceptable limits?
  • Is this going to be a temporary or permanent condition?
  • Is this someone who normally has their act together and has merely hit a few rough spots in life but that you expected that they will move past their problems within a few weeks or months?
  • Or is this par for the course and you really don’t expect to see an end to the employee’s endless stories for not meeting your expectations?

It’s often the person who cannot simply manage their life that ends up in one bad situation after another. If there is no end in sight, it is unfair to the government and to other employees to have to permanently accommodate this individual’s personal problems.

Therefore, you want to be sympathetic and patient when dealing with temporary lulls in performance caused by personal problems. However, you are going to have to be uncompromising with dealing with a permanent situation or with anything that causes an employee’s performance to fall below the acceptable level. Your job is to manage performance, not employee’s personal problems. You are a manager, not a social worker.

Medical problems. If the employee raises medical concerns, see your servicing HR Office immediately. This subject matter is tightly bound by laws and regulations. These laws do not necessarily prohibit you from taking action, however, they do require special handling and the advise/assistance of an expect in this area.

Final Comments

Dealing with performance problems is a series of steps in increasing intensity and severity. Counseling is a critical part of this progressive process. If you have done your counseling sessions well, most of your performance problems should disappear or at least improve to within barely tolerable limits. Often performance problems can be dealt with by either removing management barriers to success or by providing feedback to the employee of specific deficiencies. It’s usually a case where the employee is unaware of the seriousness of what they are doing wrong. Good performance standards with solid and timely feedback usually take care of performance problems before you have to take formal action.

However, you may still run into cases where you have an employee who either cannot or will not accept the fact that their performance is deficient. Either you have an employee who cannot perform no matter how hard they try and no amount of assistance or training will help, or you have an employee who is capable but is not willing to do their job. In either case, your response will be the same. You must now sit down and give the person a detailed ultimatum called a performance improvement plan (PIP).

The PIP is basically a lengthy counseling letter that details exactly what the employee is doing wrong, precisely what the employee must do to bring performance to an acceptable level, how long they have to improve, how you will monitor the work during the PIP, and what is going to happen to him or her at the end of the improvement period.

According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the legal requirement for issuing a PIP is that you issue a PIP only when the employee’s performance is at an unacceptable level. The formal improvement period is a serious step; it is the last phase before removing the person from their position. Given the formality of the action, you will need the assistance and advice of your servicing HR Office before you initiate this type of action.


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