The Foreign Service Journal - September 2016
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One of my favorite things

about the Foreign Service is

the people. Most of our col-

leagues are smart, dedicated

and compassionate, but

every now and then a poor

performer makes one ques-

tion how that individual has

been “allowed” to remain.

AFSA President Ambas-

sador Barbara Stephenson

and I (along with several

Governing Board members)

ran for office under the ban-

ner of “Strong Diplomacy,”

vowing that we would use our

time in office to strengthen

the Foreign Service both

internally and in terms of its

public image. Unaddressed

poor performance threatens

both employee morale and

institutional reputation, and

it’s high time we acknowl-

edge that.

Here’s the bottom line: if

supervisors of poor per-

formers do not fulfill their

responsibilities by counseling

and documenting as many

examples as possible, then

the employees’ chances

of successfully grieving

evaluations are exponentially

higher. A large percentage of

grievances won by poor per-

formers would likely not have

succeeded had the relevant

supervisors taken decisive

steps earlier in the process.

In recent years, the Foreign

Service Institute has added

modules to supervisory and

leadership courses, on man-

aging poor performers and

having difficult conversations.

Taking Performance Management Seriously



Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.


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But I’d also like to outline a

few things here that supervi-

sors should do when they

encounter a poor performer:

(1) Do the detailed Work

Requirements Statement

(not just the work respon-

sibilities portion of the

Employee Evaluation Review)

within the 45-day timeframe.

The earlier you establish in

writing your goals and expec-

tations, the earlier you can

begin addressing anyone who

is veering off course.

(2) Ask the employee

what’s behind the poor

performance. Is something

personal going on, is he or

she overworked, or does the

employee need training?

What can you do to help over-

come such obstacles?

(3) Address the first

instance of poor perfor-

mance instead of waiting

until they pile up. If the

employee turns things

around and works to correct

the deficiency, you aren’t

obligated to mention in the

EER that you counseled

him or her. Counseling is

designed to help people

improve, not to punish them.

The goal should be to fuel

excellence and build on

people’s strengths, along

with correcting any defi-

ciencies via frequent, rich

conversations. The Foreign Service Grievance Board

takes into account proactive

and positive efforts (or lack

thereof) by the supervisor

to improve the employee’s

performance when consider-

ing a grievance.

(4) Be as specific as

possible when counseling.

Outline in writing (ideally on

the Professional Develop-

ment Form) steps you expect

the employee to take to

demonstrate improvement.

Schedule a follow-up meeting

to assess how the employee

is doing, and document the

results of that meeting. If

examples of poor perfor-

mance or conduct as well as

your efforts to improve the

situation are clearly docu-

mented, the FSGB will find

it much easier to assess a

grievance fairly.

(5) Whenever you need

to reallocate work, such as

shifting reporting portfo-

lios, meet with the affected

employees, discuss your

thinking and expectations,

and adjust work require-

ments. If the change is the

result of poor performance,

document it. Far too often we

see cases where employees

are removed from projects

or duties, only to be penal-

ized in their EERs for sub-par

performance which led to the

changed responsibilities. Talk

to the people you supervise

early, clearly and often. And

did I mention the need to

document all this in writing?

(6) Don’t go it alone or

you risk making it look like

a personal vendetta. Keep

your supervisor(s) informed

about not only the poor

performance, but also what

you’re doing about it. Ensure

that your supervisor agrees

with your approach and

will support your decisions.

Encourage your supervisor

to counsel the employee. No

reviewing officer wants to

learn of problems for the first

time when they see a draft


Yes, we are all busy, and

good performance man-

agement takes time and

energy—but I guarantee you

that you will be glad to have

all that documentation at

hand if a grievance is filed. If

we want the Foreign Service

to maintain its reputation

for excellence, we need to

ensure the professional

development of our people

and, just as importantly,

retain the ability to separate

(through proper procedures)

those who fail to uphold our

standards of performance or







Unaddressed poor performance threatens

both employee morale and institutional reputation,

and it’s high time we acknowledge that.