Underperformers get golden handshakes as managers shirk difficult conversations

By Harley Dennett

May 24, 2017

Most watchers of government might have suspected that restructures and redundancies were used to quietly get rid of the worst performers. Some have seen it first hand. Now, it’s official.

The Australian National Audit Office’s report on management of underperformance, tabled on Tuesday, confirmed many of the worst stereotypes and claims of abuse of public service employment protections.

Probation periods are not effectively used to identity poor performers. Managers often avoid addressing underperformance due to a lack of incentives, support and capability — or because they fear a bullying complaint. Some agencies have used redundancies or incentives to retire as alternatives to underperformance procedures.

“… and while these may be cost-effective approaches in situations of excess staffing or in particularly complex cases,” the report states, “they should not be used to replace or undermine ongoing, robust underperformance management procedures.”

It’s not just managers who misuse the system for expedience or to avoid difficult conversations. The audit confirms that underperformers do take advantage of bullying and unacceptable behaviour complaint processes, and even sick leave, to delay the performance management process. The consequence of how both parties use and fear these provisions is that issues are frequently not properly addressed, the report says.

“A culture of regular, informal performance discussions has not been established in most agencies so many managers are not building-up these skills over the course of their careers.”

Fixing the culture without changing the rules

The Australian Public Service employment protections are infamously strong. Nothing like it exists in the private or not-for-profit sectors. ANAO has not suggested Enterprise Bargaining Agreements be changed.

Instead, ANAO suggests most agencies can streamline their underperformance procedures to remove time consuming repetition and prescription, while retaining procedural fairness. These procedures should:

  • not contain requirements that are in excess of those required by good practice, legislation or regulation, for example, for SES and short-term non-ongoing employees;
  • communicate clear expectations of the duration of key processes;
  • provide guidance and examples that distinguish health and misconduct issues from underperformance;
  • provide clear guidance on the support and assistance available to managers from human resources professionals; and
  • provide better guidance on managing the performance of probationary employees.

‘Sure, but in practice…’

As few as 14% of employees in some departments agreed with a survey question that managers are dealing with underperformance effectively. To address that, managers need more support tools, acting auditor-general Rona Mellor says. Checklists, flowcharts and tips and tricks. Also, guidance on fitness for duty, misconduct and probation. This information should be centrally available and clearly visible on intranet sites.

The causes of underperformance in the APS are varied, the report finds. Regardless of a person’s obligations, some will face personal, physical and mental health challenges that can affect their performance, but underperformance processes may not be appropriate in those situations. The report acknowledges that the underperformance process itself can exacerbate underlying medical conditions or create stress-related conditions.

Similarly, misconduct under the Code of Conduct shouldn’t be addressed through underperformance processes, warns the Australian Government Solicitor.

ANAO is particularly concerned that APS managers don’t make better use of probationary periods to actively test the suitability of newly appointed employees. Mellor writes that managers should also clearly convey job expectations to the employee through regular and constructive feedback, so any gaps can be addressed early.

Guidance is available

The idea of frequent conversations — rather than relying on end-of-cycle formal reviews — as one of the key tools to ensuring high performance is not new. Certainly not to the Australian Public Service Commission.

Deputy commissioner Stephenie Foster responded that there are a number of initiatives to support managers, including Optimising Performance in the APS, released last year. It followed up with the release of the Ripple smartphone app, that has proven popular in early trials.

The APSC is also working with HR managers across the APS to build an assessment of HR capability. “It is expected that this will reveal gaps in capability that will take some time and effort to address, including HR support to line managers. The assessment will form the basis of a plan to build greater capability into the future.”

ANAO examined the management of underperformance in eight agencies: Attorney-General’s Department; Australian Taxation Office; Department of Agriculture and Water Resources; Department of Industry, Innovation and Science; Department of Social Services; Department of Veterans’ Affairs; IP Australia; and the National Film and Sound Archive.

Social Services secretary Finn Pratt urged all employees and managers to take ownership of the audit findings and work towards building a culture that celebrates high performance, supports managers to hold difficult conversations, and encourages employees to remain open to feedback and accept responsibility for their performance and improvements when needed.

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