The Downside of a Circular Firing Squad

Tuesday - 6/7/2011, 4:00am EDT

I once worked for an operation of about 850 people which had an interesting HR quirk. Nobody ever got fired, yet turnover (involuntary turnover) was very high. So how did it manage to get rid of people it didn't want without firing them? Two ways:

  • One it would simply appeal to the designated firee's pride. Tell him/her they had no future, were not wanted and let them announce their resignation.

  • The other technique was to find out what they absolutely couldn't stand, then make that their assignment. Afraid of mice? Good, you are our new mouse control officer. Suffer from claustrophobia? Okay, we're moving you to a refrigerator box-sized office in the basement. Bring your own candles.

At another job it was more direct. One day they fired the entire staff (save me and my editor). We were told we could take as much time as necessary but to find other jobs.

Congress, on a regular basis, discovers (decides) that it is difficult if not impossible to fire federal slackers. Currently it is considering denying pay raises to poor performers--once pay raises resume that is--and also withholding longevity step raises (WIGs) to losers. Each year the government fires 10,000 to 12,000 feds for misconduct or poor performance, and denies WIGS to between 700 and 800. Clearly that is not enough, according to some members of Congress.

Yesterday's column discussed the issue of how best to whack federal slackers. This is how people responded:

  • "The 'Defense Authorization Bill' with its 'anti-slacker clause' was good for a morning laugh. Any federal manager who has fired someone knows they face two problems that will never change: they will get no support from above and they will need a ton of documentation before HR will do anything. Good luck with that one. The good news is everyone in the House of Representatives can be fired every two years with minimal paperwork." Bill a Retired Fed

  • "Another pose being taken by Congress is omphaloskepsis. Meditating while gazing at one's navel." Regards, Milt

  • "Fire the slackers… ha ha ha ha… that will cost more money than just sticking them in a corner with a book and telling them to stay out of the way. The complete lack of understanding on the part of Congress as to how it works in the 'real world' amazes me. To get rid of someone for performance issues, as opposed to a cut and dry rules violation of some kind, literally requires a full two thirds of a manager's time and effort for months on end; and in the end, the NLRB or some other governing body will likely just reinstate them on the grounds that the agency didn't waste quite enough money and resources attempting to re-train them. The process is all consuming and stressful enough to shorten one's life.

    "When I was in the private sector, people who did not perform generally fired themselves (quit) after a while when they realized they weren't cutting it, and pressure from a manager or bad reviews mounted. Since private employment is generally 'at will,' getting rid of a poor performer is easy. In the government, these people hang on until the bitter end, fighting tooth and nail… filing EEO complaints and appealing at every step. I am sure that just like at most agencies, my position as a supervisor here is one of a 'subject matter expert' or 'working supervisor'… yes, I sign the performance appraisals and time cards, etc, but I have actual real work to do that involves my agency's mission. I don't have time to spend 5 or 6 hours a day for months, preparing the documentation required to initiate the 'performance improvement plan' and then spend another many months documenting further failures to initiate a termination action. Because…by this time, if the individual is a minority, female, or over 40 something, I will probably have had a visit from EEO, no matter how justified I am." Nameless

  • "Typical Congress trying to raise revenue and cutting IRS budget. I thought most of these guys were college educated? Obviously not economists!

    "As far as no performance no raise. Don't get one anyway, so what does it matter? Also, in my outfit, the poor performers are all weeded out within the probationary period. Or, if not then, before the 3 year career conditional period. The only other slackers I see are handicapped (so bonus points) or those about ready to retire and have been eligible for years. Everyone else I know works their butts off..." Busy in Montana