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Dispelling Myths about Poor Performers

Dispelling Myths about Poor Performers

What's the true story behind the number of poor performers in the Federal workforce? The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) study, "Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story," states that 3.7 percent of the Federal workforce are poor performers and 1.5 percent are rehabilitated poor performers. The study examines the common perception that there are too many poor performers in the Federal Government.

Peter D. Dickson, study coordinator, says this study provides a realistic perspective on poor performers in the Federal workforce. The study notes that by believing the Government workforce is overrun with poor performers, we are diverting our attention from other important issues and from developing a realistic approach to addressing poor performers.

What Worked

Good management practices were the key to many of the successes in rehabilitating poor performers. In some cases, it took coaching and assigning employees to a mentor or advisor to help them improve their performance. In other cases, it took placing employees on performance improvement plans, giving the employees very candid counseling, and redefining and clarifying their work responsibilities. The study also notes that giving underperforming employees a less-than-fully satisfactory performance rating can be effective. In several instances, "last chance" agreements with poor performers produced results. (The "last chance" agreements provided confirmation that only two options were left and one of them was removal.) In cases where the employees lacked appropriate job skills, additional training or development helped.

Positive Consequences

Supervisors reported that discipline or removal of the poor performer served as a wake-up call to their marginal performers. Other benefits included improved employee morale, higher productivity, an increase in the supervisor's credibility with other employees, and restored faith that "the system" can and does work.


The study offers several recommendations, including —

  • Get accurate information into the public discourse. The public, including the Federal workforce itself, tends to exaggerate the scope of the poor performer problem in Government. Wide dissemination of these findings should serve to move discussion toward a firmer foundation in reality.
  • Top agency management should do more to support managers and supervisors in taking action to deal with poor performers. Supervisors had a consistent perception that higher-level management was not supportive of direct action to deal with poor performers. To the extent that these perceptions are true, top managers must try harder to support justifiable actions against poor performers.
  • Training and support for supervisors should emphasize "just-in-time" approaches. Most supervisors reported that they received training or orientation related to dealing with poor performers early in their supervisory careers. However, they also reported that, when faced with a poor performance situation, the training was too remote in time or too general in nature to be useful.

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