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Supervisors in the Federal Government

Supervisors in the Federal Government: A Wake-Up Call

The Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) Office of Merit Systems Oversight and Effectiveness (OMSOE) conducted a study to assess the status of current efforts in Federal agencies to select, develop, and evaluate first-level supervisors, and to determine what level of attention agencies are devoting to this important management challenge. One of the key findings of the study specifically addressed performance management practices. The study found that Federal supervisors:

  • take issue with the way their performance is evaluated and believe that the ability to get work done through others should be given more weight in the appraisal process;
  • would like to see the supervisory probationary period used more effectively to identify new supervisors who have not demonstrated they have the competencies for successful performance as supervisors;
  • generally perceive that poor performing supervisors are ignored and receive little feedback on how to improve; and
  • believe that effective supervisors are not adequately recognized and rewarded.

Appraisal Process

The study reports that most agencies rate the performance of first-level supervisors in much the same way as they do non-supervisors. Leadership responsibilities are not assessed extensively. Most agencies simply add a generic element covering supervisory responsibilities to the technical work elements. While technical competence is critical at the first-line level, the ability to get work done through others is vital as well. Agencies should carefully assess how they incorporate into appraisals the results of effective supervisory and leadership competencies and place greater emphasis on those results.

Supervisory Performance During Probation

A new supervisor is given a 1-year probationary period to demonstrate successful performance as a supervisor. At the end of the probationary period, the agency determines whether to retain that employee as a supervisor or to return the employee to a non-supervisory position. The study reports that agencies are not using this probationary period effectively. According to OPM's Central Personnel Data File, only two supervisors in all of Government were removed during their probationary period in fiscal year 1998. The probationary period does not appear to weed out those supervisors who are not performing well as supervisors. Agencies need to monitor the performance of their probationary supervisors; provide them training, coaching, and feedback; and take action to improve performance or to return poor performing supervisors to non-supervisory positions.


Adequate feedback on performance is fundamental to successful performance management. Most agencies require formal feedback twice a year. According to the supervisors interviewed for this study, feedback at times other than the required formal feedback is rare, and mostly addresses the technical work. Agencies should place more emphasis on providing helpful feedback to all their supervisors, but especially to those in the probationary period or who are performing poorly. That feedback needs to include information about performance of supervisory responsibilities as well as technical responsibilities.

Recognition and Rewards

The supervisors who participated in this study reported that their agencies give far greater weight to technical work over supervisory responsibilities in terms of what agencies recognize and reward. Many supervisors voiced frustration about being unappreciated for doing a tough job. They feel like forgotten individuals who are no longer line employees, but who are not viewed by executives as part of the management team. Agencies need to take actions to make their supervisors feel valued. Some agencies have created award programs that specifically recognize exemplary supervisors.

This study should serve as a wake-up call for agencies to take immediate action to address a serious problem that has the potential to worsen. Among other actions, agencies must take the performance management of their first-line supervisors seriously by placing emphasis on the appraisal, development, and recognition of supervisory and leadership skills. You may download a pdf (Adobe portable document format) version of the full OMSOE report.

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