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Garry Platt

Woodland Grange

Senior Consultant

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Sack ‘Em!


A frequent area I am asked to help managers develop in is managing poor performance and undertaking 'difficult' conversations with staff who are not performing effectively. In my experience this is often because the basic requirements of effective objective/target setting are not being undertaken, linked to constructive effective feedback. Praise and appropriate reprimanding and support/training are often conspicuous by there absence and recording of action taken is seldom undertaken. And then failing any improvement rarely is disciplinary action in conjunction with their respective HR Departments followed through.

This issue might well be worse in the public sector and based on a programme I listened to on Radio 4 last night they certainly seemed to make this case. 'Sack 'em' outlined some extraordinary evidence that many of our Civil Service Departments and large City Councils have either; A) Amazing line management and recruitment systems or B) A virtually complete disregard for actually addressing poor performance in the workplace. C) A reluctance to engage with the challenges of the Employment Law. But here is a synopsis and podcast:

My question; do you think the public sector fails to address poor performance better or worse than their counterparts in the private sector? And if worse is this due to poor training and development of managers or a cultural trait of this sector; having the means but not the will?

9 Responses

  1. Have we got any evidence?

    I guess that the challenge here is to find evidence rather than personal assertion. Having said that, here is my assertion…

    Having ‘consulted’ with several public and pseduo-public organisations over the years, as well as having other voluntary links that bring me into contact with LA officers…

    I am clear that there is a significant cohort of poor performing individuals who simply get away with it. I also come across HR people who are paranoid about legislation, processes that lean over backwards to reduce any risk of an IT and cultures that are not willing or able to address the challenge of improving performance.

    Having said that, in 26 years of paid employment in (mostly) the private sector, I cannot recall a single person being dismissed for incompetence!

  2. Good Point

    "Having said that, in 26 years of paid employment in (mostly) the private sector, I cannot recall a single person being

    dismissed for incompetence!"

    Good point…I would go further and say they are the ones who usually get promoted!

  3. This Mob

    The guilty will remain nameless, but an Employment Law Barrister responded privately to me following the circulation of this link on another forum from which I have extracted the following quote. I share it here only because it tickled me.

    “The general discourse surrounding the manifest unwillingness to approach capability issues in the public sector is completely accurate in my experience.  If ever a sector needed training in having difficult conversations (as in "how can I put this, your crap!), it is this mob.”

  4. You’re Mired!

    Ah, but ‘you’re crap’ would surely be "discriminatory" and would be labelled instead: ‘Universally challenged’ (you’re still crap – but promotable) under Chapter 301.101 clause VI, sub section 3, paragraph….no, that’s not it; wait a minute…..

  5. Is an Employee Survey evidence?

    In our experience public sector employees themselves think that poor performance is not dealt properly in the public sector.

    If you have a public sector client ask to see their last employee survey. It may have a question such as, "Do you think poor performance is well managed?" or something similar.

    In a recent survey we have seen less than 20% of the respondents thought that poor performance was well managed.

    We also observed that many employee objectives were activity focused rather than outcome focused. E.g. Make 10 visits a week rather than have 10 vist reports accepted and actioned every week.

    If objectives are activity focused rather than outcome focused it’s very difficult to put people on poor performance. Success becomes being busy rather than delivering required outcomes.

    Ian Clarke /

  6. Will is a skill…

     I have experienced/observed this problem in several organisations both private and public. However, I can see the tide starting to turn now, particularly in my own organisation (public sector). For the last 18 months I have been involved in training our managers in a course called ‘Crucial Conversations’ and it has been very well received. See for more info.

    I’m not so sure that it’s entirely down to a lack of will on the manager’s part – especially these days when organisations are having to become much leaner. There’s not so much opportunity to hide or carry poor performers and therefore it is less tolerated than before. I have found from running this course, that most managers just want to be given the support to address performance issues effectively and as their skill increases, surprisingly so does their will !

  7. Sack ’em!

    Hi Garry

    These issues are addressed on the following website. It is a common website for public sector organisations to share ideas on improvement. Give it a go.

    Communities of Practice for public service

    My twopenneth on your question is that the same deficiencies will mean that downsizing will be difficult. Better employers handle redundancies better. Poor employers do not.



    Paul Strange

  8. It’s not just public sector…

    I have no experience of working in public sector, but know plenty of people of who do, and my impression is that poor performers simply get moved around as no-one will tackle the underlying problem. But it is not just in public sector where this is a problem. Many large private sector companies also provide places for people to ‘hide’.  As long as they don’t do anything awful, colleagues ‘work around them’ and accept it as normal. In small or medium sized organisation you simply cannot get away with it, as the business isn’t large enough to ‘carry’ people.

    My personal concern is that in response to the spending review, many public and private sector organisations will have to cut staff and they will not lose these people who just don’t make the grade. They will be protected by length of  service, lack of evidence and just by plain ‘knowing the system’, and the wrong people will be made to leave.

  9. Which Mob ?

    If I may just add to this discussion. I have experience of the Public Sector both as a manager and also as an external training provider and in both roles have regularly come across the situation where ‘Operational Managers’ are desperate to deal with instances of poor performance only to be told by a Senior Manager, to ‘let it go’ or ‘ignore it and see what happens’. If I can share a short tale to highlight my point.

    A team leader, on a Programme I was delivering, raised the issue about dealing with a on-going poor performer, as we had gone through a structured approach to dealing with poor performance and the team leader involved had seemed very enthusiastic  and willing to try the approach the question seemed a little strange. When I questioned a little more, it became apparant that the Team Leader wanted to know what to do if despite following the structured approach, performance did not improve – he also asked whether ‘performance’ could include behaviour with, and towards other team members. When asked if he would like to explain the follwoing story came out:

    The workshop participant had been appointed about 18 months prior, his first management post (interestingly this workshop was his first management training), but he had entered the position with some enthusiasm and despite making a few mistakes along the way (his words) he had finally got the 3 team members working well together and the team was performing well. However, about 6 months before the workshop, his manager informed him that he was getting a new member of staff transferred into his team from one of the other teams in his division (there were about 6 other teams in the Division). The Team Leader said that from the moment the new team member arrived the team changed – and yes we did discuss stages of a teams development on the workshop and the impact it can have on performance – but that many of the ‘changes’nvolved the way this new team member ‘behaved to other team members and the Team Leader – e.g. questioning how and why things were done, who could tell the team member what to do etc etc. Again we referred back to the structured approach to managing performance and the Team Leader outlined what he had done on a number of occasions and all seemed very legitimate in managing poor performance. However, performance had not improved and the Team Leader approached his Manager, in desperation really, but hoping for advice, and still willing to effectively manage the person involved. The advice he received was novel to say the least, but more worringly has now affected that individuals desire to manage the poor performer.

    So what was the advice the Senior Manager gave ? The Team Leader explained the situation and what he had done to deal with the situation and the Manager nodding throughout and then gave this advice. He advised the Team Leader to take a grievance out against the team member claiming harassment and bullying, along with the words ‘Get yours in first before they take one out against you as they have done with all their previous team leaders.’

    It turns out that the individual had actiually worked for 4 of the other teams in the Division and in each case the process had been the same. They did not want to be managed and when a Team Leader attempted any sort of management the person took a grievance out citing bullying and harassment and in each case it had been agreed (by the ‘Organisation’)  to transfer the individual to another team rather than deal with the actual issue of ‘poor performance’,

    The real issue though is not the individual involved but the impact it has had on the 5 team leaders who had managed the person. All are now unwilling to deal with underperformance as they all feel that they never get supported ‘up above’ – whether that is their Manager or indeed HR.

    Whilst this may seem an extreme story, the same principle is all too common in many public bodies. That principle seems to be that senior managers are unwilling to even follow their own policies on dealing with poor performance, preferring to adopt a head in the sand priciple, and hope the situation sorts itself out or HR take responsibility and ‘deal with it’. 

    Personally I am not a person who feels it necessary to fling insults at the Public Sector as they are under intense pressure from all sides and perform admirably in extremely difficult situations, but such bodies have some of the best policies and procedures for dealing with poor performance but seem distinctly retiscent to use them effectively. Meaning operational managers are unwilling to manage performance for fear of being under mined by their Senior Managers.

    So as my heading says ‘Which Mob ?’ are unwilling and who needs to change first ? The Senior Managers who fail to provide strong leadership in dealing with poor performance or the operational managers who are failing to deal with  the actual poor performer.

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Garry Platt

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