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Posts & articles that have helped thousands build performance through pragmatic leadership.

Managing Over & Under Achievers

A colleague of mine who is also a friend was recently fired from my agency, one of the many that make up the New York City government. He was a few months shy of the end of his the 2-year probationary period attached to his civil service title. In a matter of a month I watched him go from being a relative star to someone who was fired.

His employment was terminated not long after a “fair to good” performance review – the only review he received during his tenure with the agency. He had been such a prized commodity that when I attempted to steal him for a new unit that I was asked to create I was rebuffed – “You can’t take my best guy!” They said.

From my understanding even most of the top management were not aware of the desire to fire him until a week or two before the day he was escorted from the premises. The mangers above him did not bother building their case or at least persuading any of the other managers. Much of the management and the majority of the staff were shocked to discover that he had been fired. No one knew why. He wasn’t one of the guys who called out sick at least once a week (though we have a few). He wasn’t even one of the guys that worked his exact eight hours and then went home. He was one of the hard workers, one of the stand-outs, an overachiever in his colleagues’ eyes if not those of his supervisors.

His supervisors explained to me that he had refused a direct order to attend an e-mail training session and that it took him several days to clean up his cubicle after being directed to do so. More than that they said he didn’t show them ample respect; he didn’t recognize the legitimacy of their authority, so unlike his civil service counterparts, he would not be tolerated or even, as I suggested, transferred.

“Let him work in my unit now,” I petitioned to no avail. The agency was moving on. He was out.

I have had the pleasure of managing many extraordinary people and a few god-awful workers in my time with the City. I have learned over the years the importance of documentation and the step-by-step process of discipline. Verbal warnings followed by informal meetings, followed by formal supervisory conferences, and so on. The goal was always to improve or correct the behavior of the employee, not to harass or insult, and not even to build a paper-trail (though that was a necessary outcome). Even, in such circumstances, I have seen some workers who do not improve. It’s impossible for me to know if their intentions are honest and their performance falls short nevertheless or if they are smart enough to know that you never say “No” to a supervisor, you just keep placating with the phrase “I’ll try harder.”

How do you address a worker with a good attitude that just isn’t pulling their share of the load? In a team environment these employees can have a debilitating affect on the rest of your staff. Everyone knows the people that don’t cut it. You can monitor the frequency and duration of their smoke breaks, place them in a highly-visible spot on the office floor, require daily reports of work done. You can enact these measures and more, but for service jobs where monitoring productivity is more difficult, there is a limit to increased monitoring. Not to mention, I have seen many instances where even after measures such as these were enacted and productivity increased only slightly. The bottom line is these workers don’t cut it and should be terminated. In the Civil Service environment, they are transferred instead. Several of the employees that this article refers to were actually transferred to us or as they say around the office, “dumped on us”.

This past April, Mayor Bloomberg required all City agencies to cut their budgets by 14% and he is expected to ask for another 14% over the summer. These types of cuts necessitate staff lay-offs and the elimination of un-filled open lines. Yet when the commissioners look out across their agency staff they must eliminate provisional (non-permanent) first. Of course the civil service ranks are filled with many extraordinary employees. Nonetheless, as a manager I have to fire the provisional over-achiever and keep the permanent staff member that hasn’t been able to cut it in years. This not only impacts the effectiveness of my unit, but also the morale. The other permanent employees who are over-achievers hate seeing the provisional worker laid-off while the permanent employee stays on. It means the loss of a strong resource for them and an embarrassing reminder of the worse failings of civil service.

It cuts both ways for managers as well. It’s an incredibly reassuring feeling to know that I won’t have to justify keeping my staff because several of them are permanent civil servants. At the same time though I know that part of the reason my friend was fired was because of his mangers’ experience with permanent workers who were passively obstinate, reluctant to follow new direction, and generally unimpressed with managements’ expertise. They saw how these workers had influenced my friend and so rather than be forced to live with it they quickly fired him before his probationary period was over.

What does it all mean? What do we do now?

Freeman and Medoff told us over 25 years ago that:

“If management uses the collective bargaining process to learn about and improve the operation of the workplace and the production process, unionism can be a significant plus to enterprise efficiency. On the other hand, if management responds negatively to collective bargaining (or is prevented by unions from reacting positively), unionism can significantly harm the performance of the firm.”

“On the one side, many economist view unions largely as monopolies in the labor market whose primary economic impact is to raise members’ wages at the expense of unorganized labor and of the efficient functioning of the economy. On the other side are those who believe unions have beneficial economic and political effects. Industrial relations experts have long stressed the ways in which collective bargaining can induce better management with higher productivity. … in addition to increased wages, unions provide workers both with protection against arbitrary management decisions and with a voice at the work place and in the political arena.”

Maybe the heart of the matter is bigger than the question of unions. Does the debate really center around wishing we could separate the under-achievers from the high-flyers? The union provides equal protection for both – it can’t see them differently.

Like our debate about immigration. We don’t want immigrants that will come and take (social services) more than they give (taxes). Do we really care about the immigrant that comes with his/her own money and asks nothing of us? What if we could only accept those individuals that, whether they had money or not, we knew that any stint receiving public assistance would be short-lived; the strivers that want nothing more than to work, pay taxes, and send their kids to school? Do we want a system that protects even if in order to do so it must pride protection for strong and weak alike or do we prefer to offer protection to none, so as to avoid propping up the weak? While I entered these recent issues at my job through the union prism, is my dilemma perhaps as fundamental as wanting to protect the good workers and easily rid myself of the underperformers.

But no one cares about unions anymore anyway. Most of my friends that work in the private sector consider unions to be a vestige of antiquated disputes rendered unnecessary by the efficiency of the market. Unionized workers are only the stereotypical and unaccountable in an era where even Communists are free marketers. Perhaps, the exception is the construction industry.

The recent decades have seen tremendous growth in productivity with little real growth for wages with few complaints. The so-called expanding pie that we would all get a bigger slice of has primarily increased the return on capital investment, and wages to the highest executive positions, and yet not one of the major political parties is attempting to address this in a meaningful way.

Even after the market failures that nearly brought the economy to it’s knees and persists with unemployment of nearly ten percent (real unemployment probably much higher), the prevailing wisdom of markets and lightly regulated capitalism was only briefly brought into question. So who should care about workers when the workers don’t?

Photo Credit: gino.mempin



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