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Reduction in classification for unsatisfactory performance

An employee in a casework role was reduced by two classification levels for unsatisfactory performance. His manager was concerned about the employee's analytical skills as demonstrated in the quality of his written reports and his capacity to organise and progress his caseload.

The employee argued that both the managing underperformance process and its outcome were unfair. In particular, the employee was concerned about the behaviour and judgements of his supervisor. His supervisor managed the underperformance process, defined the performance measures, provided feedback and assessed the standard of his performance. On review, the employee sought to have the reduction in classification overturned.

The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that there was evidence of performance problems for at least two years before action was taken to manage the employee's underperformance. Although the employee was rated as satisfactory in previous performance cycles, his supervisor commented on the need for the employee to improve his technical skills, accuracy and written communication, to increase his influence on the outcomes of the section. The employee did not recognise that the written feedback pointed to substantive concerns, including because he was subsequently offered higher duties. The Merit Protection Commissioner accepted evidence that, by the time the managing underperformance process was initiated, the employee had a backlog of cases and his supervisor was doing a substantial amount of work checking and rewriting the employee's reports so that they achieved the necessary outcomes.

The agency had a two stage process for managing underperformance. The first stage involved providing the employee with support and guidance in meeting performance expectations. The second stage was an assessment process. The employee's supervisor provided the support in the first stage and conducted the assessment in the second stage. The employee also had access to an external mentor during both stages.

The employee was concerned that the process was unfair and that his supervisor was the 'sole arbiter' of his performance. He was upset by the unrelenting nature of his supervisor's criticism of his performance, describing it as negative and condescending. The employee found the process demoralising because he felt that whatever he did to improve his performance it was never enough.

The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that it was not uncommon for employees to feel unfairly targeted when managed for underperformance and that even a well-conducted process can be upsetting and affect an employee's self esteem. It is also not unusual for employees to attribute this to personal animosity on the manager's part. The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that the supervisor presented credibly as a conscientious and concerned manager and there was no evidence to suggest her views of the employee's performance were influenced by personal animosity.

The employee was also concerned about the lack of support he received from his supervisor during the final stage of the managing underperformance process. The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that the supervisor's role changed from a manager/coach to a manager/assessor during the final stage. In the final stage, the supervisor needed to judge what the employee could do without intensive support and with just the usual managerial direction. For example, the Merit Protection Commissioner considered it was unreasonable to expect the supervisor to redraft the employee's reports to assist him to reach the appropriate standard.