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Performance Management Performance Management Cycle

Dealing With the Marginal Performer

Federal agencies cannot afford employees who are performing their duties less than fully successfully. Governmentwide regulations recommend that agencies provide assistance whenever performance becomes marginally successful. However, unlike the regulations for dealing with employees who are Unacceptable, the regulations do not specify what should be done for marginal performers. Some agencies have formal processes that supervisors must follow for assisting marginal performers. Other agencies use an informal process. This article reviews reasons for addressing marginal performance and provides tips for supervisors who want to help marginal performers improve.

Reasons for addressing marginal performance

Good supervisors do not allow marginal performance to continue, for these reasons:

  • When employees' performance deteriorates, they often perform at the marginal level for a time before dropping to Unacceptable. Catching and addressing poor performance before it becomes Unacceptable is an easier and more effective way of dealing with performance problems.
  • If supervisors talk with employees when performance first becomes marginal, the discussions may serve as a "wake-up call." When employees first slip into marginal performance, they are more likely to be open to discussing what needs to be done to improve performance.
  • Supervisors can help employees improve without the negative consequences of threatening their jobs. Employees can concentrate on building necessary skills without worrying about possible unemployment at the end of the performance improvement period.
  • By addressing performance problems, supervisors signal to all employees that the organization does not tolerate poor performance.

What can a supervisor do?

Here are a few tips for assisting marginal performers. In addition to following these tips, supervisors should also remember to check with their Human Resources Office to see if their agency has a formal process for addressing marginal performance.

  • Clear communication. Supervisors must communicate clear performance standards and expectations. They should take time to look at the existing performance standards and make some changes if the standards don't really communicate their expectations. If employees don't understand what is expected, it is very hard - sometimes impossible - for them to meet those expectations.
  • Frequent feedback. Positive, constructive feedback from supervisors, given whenever needed, is crucial to ensuring that employees know what they've done right and what needs improvement. Feedback should be specific, meaningful, and timely.
  • Increased supervision. Marginal employees often require more direction. Supervisors should work more closely with them, while understanding that the goal is for employees to work competently and independently.
  • Positive reinforcement. Recognize good performance. Recognizing marginal employees when they do something correctly is another way of clarifying expectations and providing positive reinforcement. Recognizing good performance increases the likelihood that employees will repeat the performance.
  • Mentoring. Have an outstanding employee serve as a mentor for the marginal performer. In this way, supervisors provide a model of desired performance.
  • Training. In some situations, marginal employees need training because they lack the skills to perform at the Fully Successful level. Training can include formal classroom sessions, on-the-job training, and automated training aids.
  • Checklists. Often employees performing at the marginal level require extra assistance in setting priorities and remembering procedures. Checklists can sometimes help employees stay focused on a task and organize their work.

Avoid difficulties in the future

The major reason supervisors give for not dealing with Unacceptable performance is that the required process is too difficult. If supervisors assist employees who are struggling before they reach the Unacceptable level, they can spend their time more effectively by refocusing good performers rather than completing the formal process of removing Unacceptable performers.

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