Taking Performance Management Seriously

State VP Voice


One of my favorite things about the Foreign Service is the people. Most of our colleagues are smart, dedicated and compassionate, but every now and then a poor performer makes one question how that individual has been “allowed” to remain.

AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson and I (along with several Governing Board members) ran for office under the banner 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 acknowledge that.

Here’s the bottom line: if supervisors of poor performers 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 performers 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 managing poor performers and having difficult conversations. But I’d also like to outline a few things here that supervisors should do when they encounter a poor performer:

Unaddressed poor performance threatens both employee morale and institutional reputation, and it’s high time we acknowledge that.

(1) Do the detailed Work Requirements Statement (not just the work responsibilities portion of the Employee Evaluation Review) within the 45-day timeframe. The earlier you establish in writing your goals and expectations, 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 overcome such obstacles?

(3) Address the first instance of poor performance 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 deficiencies 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 considering a grievance.

(4) Be as specific as possible when counseling. Outline in writing (ideally on the Professional Development 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 performance or conduct as well as your efforts to improve the situation are clearly documented, the FSGB will find it much easier to assess a grievance fairly.

(5) Whenever you need to reallocate work, such as shifting reporting portfolios, meet with the affected employees, discuss your thinking and expectations, and adjust work requirements. 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 penalized 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 EER.

Yes, we are all busy, and good performance management 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 conduct.

Angie Bryan is the Department of State vice president of the American Foreign Service Association.