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NOAA Supervisory Resource Guide

How Do I Deal With an Employee's Unacceptable Performance?

Typical Scenario: An employee you supervise is not turning in work of an acceptable quality, or is regularly turning in work late.

Principle: The key to effectively managing employee performance is communication. Regular and frequent communication is important with all employees, but it is especially important when dealing with a possible performance problem. Ongoing communication between you and your employees ensure that there is a shared understanding of how you view the work being produced. While there may be disagreement between you and an employee, there should be no surprises.

Where Do I Start? When you detect a performance problem, intervene early. Counsel the employee and try to determine the cause of the poor performance. If the employee has previously been producing acceptable work, look for issues such as burn out, personal life changes, or conflicts with co-workers and respond to them.

If the employee has never provided you with acceptable work, or there is no personal reason for the employee's poor performance, determine whether the employee has the essential skills to perform the work you are expecting. If you determine the employee is lacking in essential skills (e.g. writing ability or reading comprehension) provide the employee with increased training opportunities and closer supervision.

Be sure you use a clear method of communicating to the employee your expectations:

  1. State specifically WHAT you want;
  2. State specifically WHO you want it from;
  3. State your conditions for satisfaction (e.g. time-frame, outcome);
  4. Establish a shared understanding of important elements of the assignment (For example, agree on what important words mean (explain what you mean when you say "research" – specify how you want the research presented to you).

If you are certain that you and the employee have a shared understanding of your requirements for acceptable performance, you have provided training opportunities, and the employee is still not performing acceptably, you should utilize a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

Rules and Flexibilities: Under Governmental rules, you are obligated to act when an employee's performance becomes unsatisfactory. An employee must be provided with an opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance. After being informed that performance has been unacceptable and informed of your standard of acceptable performance, the opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance is given through a written Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). If performance does not improve, you must reassign, demote, or remove the employee following a prescribed set of rules established by law. An employee serving a probationary period (usually the first year of Federal service) whose performance is unacceptable can be removed with a minimum of formal procedure. See "How are Probationary Periods an Effective Tool for Managers".

Basic Steps for Implementing A PIP:

If improvement is inadequate, you need to reassign, demote, or remove the employee. If you decide to demote or remove the employee, you need to issue the employee a formal advance written notice of this proposed action. Consult with your WFMO HR Advisor for guidance on how to proceed. A higher level official will issue a final decision (generally within 30 days) following the employee's timely reply.

If an employee wishes to appeal a demotion or a removal, he/she must choose one of the following three procedures:

Forms Needed: The employee must have a current performance plan, which lists his or her performance elements and standards. Letters or memoranda are used to notify the employee of the opportunity to demonstrate acceptable performance, and the proposal and decision to demote or remove the employee.

Time Frames: The employee must be covered by current performance standards for a minimum period of time (120 days) before formal corrective action is begun. Also, the employee normally should be given at least a 30-day opportunity period to demonstrate that he or she can perform the duties acceptably. The formal notice advising the employee that his or her demotion or removal is being proposed must be issued at least 30 days in advance of the proposed effective date of the action, and the employee must be given at least seven days to respond. These are the minimum legal time frames.

Good Management Practices: Make sure performance standards: are stated in a positive, objective, and measurable manner; are reasonable for the position; in fact relate to the actual work assigned; and are consistent with other similar positions in the office.

Focus on performance, not conduct. For example, failure to complete daily reports in a timely manner is performance; failure to return from lunch in time to complete daily reports is a conduct issue. It is always a good idea to maintain ongoing files documenting employees' performance, both positive and negative. For poor performers, it is particularly important. Documentation need not be lengthy or overly detailed. If available, including an example of a noteworthy work product is helpful to show that the employee is able to perform successfully. This documentation can also be helpful in preparing annual performance evaluations.


A Note on SES: Each new career SES employee is required to serve a one-year probationary period. During this time, it is important to observe and evaluate the employee's performance so that remedial action may be taken if necessary. In some cases, additional training might be all that is needed, while in others, removal from the SES might be appropriate.

It is not necessary to give a final rating of unacceptable performance to remove an employee during the SES probationary period, but a written notice, given at least one day in advance, is required. Career SES employees who have completed their probationary periods must be given a 30-day advance written notice of proposed removal from the SES, and the removal must be based on a final SES performance rating. (In some cases, you may not have to wait for the end of the rating cycle to give a final rating. Consult with the Executive Resources Program Manager if there is a problem requiring immediate attention.) Employees removed in this manner may request an informal hearing before the Merit Systems Protection Board. The Board cannot change a rating or order reinstatement, but can recommend action if it appears an error has been made. The fact that a hearing is requested or held does not delay the removal.

If an SES employee receives a single rating of "unsatisfactory," you have the option of reassigning the employee or removing him/her from the SES. If an employee receives two unsatisfactory ratings in five years (or two less than" fully successful" ratings in three years), you must remove the employee from the SES.

Career SES employees must also be removed if they are not recertified under the process that occurs every three years. In some cases (e.g., performance is not so deficient as to warrant immediate removal), employees may first be given a conditional recertification along with a PIP and 12-month opportunity period. Employees removed from the SES for failure to be recertified have formal appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

In certain circumstances, it may be necessary to delay a removal as because of a change in agency head or supervisor. The Executive Resources Program Manager will advise if this is applicable to your case.

Most Career SES employees with competitive service who are removed from the SES for performance reasons have "fallback" rights to a GS-15 position. You should be aware that you may still have to accommodate the employee in another position within your organization.

Additional Resources:

WFMO Employee and Labor Relations Division

back to How To Guide for Employee Relations

Page last edited: March 19, 2012

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