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Resource Center for Addressing and Resolving Poor Performance

Frequently Asked Questions

Step One: Communicating Expectations and Performance Problems

Do I have the authority to tell an employee that his or her performance is unacceptable?

Yes. More than that, as the employee's supervisor and "rating official," it should be your goal to keep an employee informed about your assessment of his or her performance, particularly when that assessment is negative. Within your agency, there may be a policy or practice you must follow when you notify an employee that his or her performance has become unacceptable. You should contact your human resources office for further information.

Do I have to wait for the annual performance appraisal to tell an employee that his or her performance is unacceptable?

No, you should not wait. In fact, good managers provide their employees with performance feedback throughout the appraisal cycle. The Office of Personnel Management reinforces this in its regulations where it states that employees need to be notified of unacceptable performance, "At any time during the performance appraisal cycle that an employee's performance is determined to be unacceptable . . . ." Notice also that the Governmentwide regulations only call for a determination, not a formal rating of record. Check with your agency on your internal policy regarding whether or not a full performance rating needs to be prepared before you inform an employee of unacceptable performance. Remember, regardless of whatever agency requirements apply, no employee likes to feel "sandbagged" at appraisal time, so confront the poor performance as soon as you become aware of it.

Should my employee get a copy of all my notes about his or her performance?

As a general rule, you should give your employee a copy of the notes from a discussion or meeting that pertain to your expectations and responsibilities as well as the employee's responsibilities. It is expected that you may take "supervisory" notes to serve as "memory joggers" regarding the employee's performance. For example, these notes can include dates or the number of times an employee was given an instruction. This type of "supervisory" information does not have to be included in the notes given to the employee. Contact your agency's legal counsel or human resources staff for information on Privacy Act requirements concerning supervisory notes.

I've never had to counsel an employee before. What kind of information is worth putting into "supervisory" notes?

One of the most important things to remember in taking notes is to date them so they reflect when you met with an employee or when you noted a particularly good or bad instance of performance. Keep track of specific examples of poor performance on work assignments. Doing so will make it easier for you to explain what's wrong with the employee's performance through the use of examples. Note how you expressed your performance expectations and how the employee responded to the counseling. Once an opportunity period (see Step Two for an explanation of an opportunity period) has begun, you will need to make notes of all routine meetings with the employee. In addition, you may need to keep a record of when assignments were given to the employee and what instructions were provided.

This person is the first employee with "unacceptable performance" I've ever had in our group. When I looked at the performance standards, I found out that he isn't even doing the work described in them. What now?

Your first step always should be to convey a clear message to the employee about what your performance expectations are. Performance standards that do not relate to the job need to be rewritten so there will be no confusion between your oral instructions or written guidance and the performance standards themselves. If the new standards that you have written are substantially different from the old ones, you will need to give the employee a chance to work under the new standards before you determine whether or not the employee's performance is unacceptable. As discussed later in Step Three, you do not always need to rely on formal performance standards, depending on the legal authority under which you take action. But you run a serious risk of either having your action overturned or mitigated upon appeal if the employee can demonstrate that his or her performance expectations were not clear.

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