Let’s Just Call This Your Last Day

About the author: Marcus Peacock is EPA’s Deputy Administrator.

Not long after coming to EPA I was asked to meet with a new group of employees whose purpose was to help first-line supervisors “thrive, not just survive.” Having a group of people who care enough about an organization to get together on their own and figure out how to improve it is like finding a vein of gold. I was anxious to meet them.

They wanted to talk about the most pressing concerns of first-line supervisors. I didn’t know what they would put at the top of the list. I figured it might be lack of resources or training, but the first thing the group mentioned was that the agency was not doing a good job of dealing with poor performers. As they explained it, a poor performer not only affects the work of one person, but also the people around them. In some cases, one or two people can demoralize a whole office.

I have no doubt EPA can do better at dealing with poor performers, but I also think it is a myth that EPA does not already take on this sometimes difficult task. This week one of EPA’s senior managers sent out a memo that I thought did a nice job of addressing this straight up. Here it is, in shortened form:

One of the areas of concern . . . is a belief among federal employees that supervisors do not deal with conduct and performance problems. I understand why this is a common notion; such matters are handled in a highly sensitive and confidential matter. . . . I think it important that we all occasionally hear about what is done to address conduct and performance issues . . . I want to share some information with you about disciplinary actions which have been taken . . . over the last few years.
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We are public servants, and as such, we each have a personal responsibility to maintain levels of behavior and performance that conform to the highest ethical standards and which promote the best interests of EPA and the federal government . . . . I expect each manager and supervisor to take appropriate disciplinary and performance actions when necessary. We practice progressive discipline, which means that we try to give employees as many opportunities as possible to correct behavior or improve performance.
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[E]mployees have been reprimanded and/or suspended for conduct relating to misuse of Agency equipment, e.g., inappropriate internet use. Employees have also been disciplined, including suspension or proposed removal, for misusing official authority or information for personal gain. Discipline has been taken for inappropriate use of the government credit card or failure to pay the bill after having been reimbursed. Attendance-related problems and/or failure to follow leave procedures have lead to discipline, including reprimand, suspension, and removal. Employees have been disciplined for what I would generally call unprofessional behavior . . . . Finally, discipline is not limited to staff. Some supervisors have found themselves subject to discipline for misconduct.

I thought it important for you to know that the myth that nothing ever happens to employees with conduct and/or performance problems is just that, a myth. Let me assure you that supervisors do not seek out opportunities to take disciplinary actions . . . . Addressing conduct and performance issues is ongoing; we are focusing time and effort to further address conduct challenges and there is room for improvement. I expect supervisors to continue to attend to this critical element of their jobs. Our mission is too important and our resources too limited to do anything else.