Ready, Aim, You're Fired

Friday - 7/8/2011, 4:00am EDT

While it is not true that government workers cannot be fired, it is true that not many get the ax. According to the Federal Times, 11,275 feds ---out of well over 2.5 million people---were fired for misconduct or poor performance in fiscal year 2009. Government critics say this is proof that most feds are fire-proof.

Some people say the lengthy government probation period is when the government drops most of its deadwood. Others say that is not so, and that the firing rate is low because managers are afraid to take action. OPM Director John Berry recently said agencies need to do a better job of rewarding top performers and identifying and punishing those who need to shape up or ship out.

A recent column on the subject headlined Still Breathing? Here's Your Raise drew lots of responses that are posted with the column. Several people contacted me directly with their take on the subject. Here's one of them:

  • "Regarding the within grade raises (WIGS) and firing poor performers; many people seem to assume that private industry is much better at weeding out the 'ROADs' (Retired On Active Duty) but my experience and observations are a little different. My wife told me many stories about here former employer (large medical device manufacturer headquartered in Deerfield, IL ) where she was a mid-level accountant for 25 years. Her observations ( and those of others I knew who worked there or at other large corporations) were that it depended upon job classification or level. The lower ranks were stomped on regularly with impunity while those in management and/or approaching executive rank were immune, no matter how incompetent or outright bad. One example comes to mind of a manager using their (company's) equipment to run his side business while he was on his 8hrs of working for the company. He was not only using their supplies (office, desk, computer paper and the like) he was stealing their time--working for himself when he should have been attending to his job. The people who were 'responsible' and would have fired him were afraid--just fearful of confrontation in general and of being sued.

    "I have a friend in the Swiss Diplomatic Corps who informed me that the complaints and facts about civil service in the US were not unique to the US. They (the Swiss) have the same problem and he told me several times that it was the nature of the beast--it didn't matter what country. This came about because I would sometimes refer to his service with awe, assuming the caliber of their people were so much above us. He informed me that was an uninformed assumption but he could see how I made the mistake. When he had to transfer back to Berne (their 'National Office,' which they had to return to periodically after so many years of being outside the country" I thought it would be neat going back to Headquarters and said so. Again, Marcus made the same point; he mentioned how I would grumble from time to time how our (IRS) National Office seemed to be out of touch, and in another world when it came to a sense of urgency. He said it was the same for him--even though he was going back to his home country, he did not look forward to returning to 'National Office.' I visited Marcus and his family in Switzerland in the summer of 1990 and he told me they were rotating out in September and he couldn't wait! Marcus Hirsiger was with the Swiss Consulate here in Chicago--he had been given a temporary promotion (acting Counsel General) which he held for a year or so before he returned to Switzerland in 1985. I can't wait to hook up with him again; being 'guys' we both aren't the best at letter writing and keeping in touch.

    "By the way, the military has the same 'step system' if I remember correctly and in all of the blather, I haven't heard a word about that one. Career men (officers and NCO's--Dad is a retired Lt. Col..) called it a 'fogy/fogey' and as a kid I asked why it was called that. Dad just looked at me and the light bulb turned on--fogey as in 'old fogey.' It was a step increase. You can compare the pay charts in the Federal Almanac for any year.

    "It's not a 'management' problem, it is a leadership problem. The English language is complicated and nuanced in many ways. I see the word manager and I am reminded that managing can also be construed as hanging on, 'coping' as it were. To paraphrase an author I cannot recall, 'A leader takes people where they want to be but a great leader takes people where they should be.'