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ATD Blog

A New Year’s Approach to Performance and Conduct in the Workplace

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The start of a New Year is a perfect opportunity for supervisors and managers to take the lead in setting the tone for the kinds of behavior and performance they expect from their teams moving forward. I call this approach a “visioning” session—it exists to remind my team what our focus is, what priorities we will set for the coming year, and how I expect us to operate. With increased attention on effectively managing performance and conduct issues in the federal workplace, there is no time like the present to start reinforcing the kinds of team norms and office protocols necessary to ensure we are all focused on the right things to get our work done.

Why Conduct Matters

There is significant cost to tolerating misconduct in the workplace, and leaders are accountable to ensure we enforce the kind of work culture that encourages and rewards good performance and behavior, but also quickly resolves poor performance and behavior. To do this effectively, supervisors and managers need tools and skills to help them along the way. This includes the ability to have very candid and direct conversations about acceptable and unacceptable behavior and performance. These difficult conversations need to be had sooner rather than later when an issue arises, and often supervisors are left on their own to address these kinds of issues at the start.

It’s important to remember that our top performers are watching. If we take too long to address performance and conduct issues among our team, many of our productive employees will find solace in another job, outside of our organization, in hopes they won’t encounter the same kind of issues.

Fundamental Objectives

At the very basis of any disciplinary or performance-based action, the goal is to make a change. The ultimate objective in addressing any unsatisfactory issue in the workplace is to let the employee know right away what the concerns are and that they need to be fixed. Aside from the burdensome paperwork trail of documentation, which is important and critical should the first steps not make a difference, the very first conversation about the issue matters the most. The goal is that the employee brings their work or conduct back to a successful level. No matter what step in the progressive discipline process you require to reach that goal, it is deemed a success if the issue has changed and the employee is performing successfully once again.

Tools and Resources

Some federal agencies have mediation services available for either the employee or supervisor, to deal with uncomfortable workplace issues in a more informal setting. Mediation can end up saving significant money, time, and resources when used early on to help address and correct performance or conduct issues in the workplace. It often works well because mediators offer impartial third-party perspectives to assist in the dialogue about the situation. Conducting effective conversations that assist both the employee and supervisor in discussing the matter at hand, outside of the traditional formalities of HR processes, can assist in building and repairing relationships, strengthening trust, and enhancing the right kinds of conversation skills needed to address challenges in the workplace. Mediation can offer cost-effective ways to resolve issues quickly and can help avoid costly litigation, administrative hearings, or investigations that accompany more formal approaches to conduct- or performance-related issues.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) also offer management tools for dealing with difficult situations and starting challenging conversations in the workplace. Often the EAP is overlooked until you need it for a critical situation or incident, but I like to consult with HR and the EAP early on about the kinds of team-building resources they offer. Some EAP providers are even able to join staff or team meetings, when appropriate. This helps bring in a team approach to generically addressing issues that can affect all staff, but when led by an outside expert, can often lead to effective results on an individual basis. It also gets your staff more familiar with what the EAP offers them, from a personal perspective—which offers individuals confidential ways for helping with work–life issues that can often interfere with their performance or conduct at work.


What Not to Do

A one-size fits all, corporate approach is not likely most effective approach to workplace issues—especially when addressing poor performance and conduct. Occasionally, when leadership perceives issues arising, they may tend to make a change that affect all employees, rather than addressing the concerns directly with the employees who are perceived to be at fault. This can have a negative effect on all others who have been performing well.

For instance, agency leadership wants to reduce the instances of unexcused or unapproved leave absences from frequently occurring. Rather than dealing with the employees who were perceived to be at fault, they restricted telework and alternate work schedules for all employees. This quickly led many of their top performers to leave the agency to find positions elsewhere with better work–life balance. The ability for the agency to perform its mission was drastically reduced because the policy it implemented to address the perceived issue actually drove its top performers out the door rather than fixing and changing the issues it had with just a few.


Where to Start

It’s important to remember that meaningful recognition and rewards matter most in reinforcing the kinds of performance and conduct we want in the workplace. It matters more than you know—just take a peek at the last 10 years of data trends from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). Meaningful, though, has different meanings to different people.

I like to start with asking my team what kinds of rewards matter most to them. Is it public recognition? Verbal acknowledgement that they did a good job—with specifics on how and what mattered most? A training or workshop that could help them enhance their skills or knowledge even further? Or is there something else that might mean more to them for recognizing a job well done? These things go a long way for the team in helping to reinforce the kinds of values, behavior, and performance that matter most.

When issues arise that need to be addressed, it’s equally important to do so in a quick, direct, and timely matter. It’s imperative that supervisors and managers master the skills necessary when dealing with performance and conduct issues in the workplace. To start, refresh yourself on the right kinds of documentation your agency requires for pursuing formal disciplinary or performance-related HR actions—should the informal actions you begin with not work, learn how to apply the Douglas Factors and due process and understand how best to make use of an employee’s probationary period. These tactics, in addition to learning the kinds of communication, team-building, and relationship-building skills necessary to foster a high-performing team, are the ingredients for enhanced success in focusing on the mission, delivering services to the American people, and focusing on the talent who do so and are dedicated to contributing to a productive, positive work environment each and every day.

About the Author

Mika Cross is an award-winning workplace expert with two decades as a career civil servant. 

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