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Managing Public Sector Employees: Transparency, Accountability and Due Process

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Elaine Ahumada, Tanya S. Harris & Megan D. Carthen-Jackson
March 10, 2023

Challenging employees exist in every public sector organization. It is not the design of the public system that is the fault for poor-performing public sector employees who continue to stay in their roles. It is the weakness of supervisory accountability and a need for proper skills to manage difficult public employees. 

Identifying problematic employee behavior before compromising the organization’s efficiencies, effectiveness and morale is paramount. The organizational culture must encourage standards and expectations of appropriate behavior through transparency and effective employee engagement.  

Employee engagement is a critical foundational component that leads to successful internal and external organizational outcomes. A culture that fosters and encourages employees to speak up, challenge and improve upon status quo organizational processes enables one to feel heard and valued. A disengaged employee needs more motivation to problem solve, and may become incapable of innovating, taking the initiative or fostering a positive organizational workplace culture and environment.  

Typically, employees and managers know who an organization’s “bad apples” or “negative detractors” are. However, unskilled managers may need help recognizing the consequential severity of poor behaviors and may be unable to confront the behaviors to elicit positive change. New managers may be reluctant to address red flags given their tenure. The adage “what you feed grows” rings true within organizations. Unchecked disruptive behaviors can form a new culture where lousy behavior becomes acceptable among current and incoming employees.  

Identify cautionary signs of poor employee behavior and address it immediately. Proactive course correction protects the organization’s legitimacy and maintains due process if employees do not improve their behavior. Problematic employee behaviors to watch for include: 

  • undermining an organization’s culture through intentional subversive actions. 
  • disparaging another employee’s work. 
  • attitudes that infect the workplace with unfavorable comments about management. 
  • resistance to managerial or organizational directives.  
  • lack of self-accountability for one’s actions/attitudes.  
  • nuanced micro-behaviors such as sarcasm, eye-rolling and offensive body language. 

Effective public sector leaders are self-aware and courageous. Informing employees of their disruptive behavior is vital to maintaining a harmonious and safe workplace. Proper and swift action to address negative behaviors through effective communication and transparent course correction is crucial. When addressing these behaviors, always maintain respect, clearly identify problematic behavior and provide clear behavioral expectations. Most importantly, reiterate that unbecoming behavior is indeed a performance issue because compromising organizational productivity is directly linked to not performing one’s duties. Addressing the employee’s behaviors should always be the focus, not the person. 

Influential leaders can impact an employee’s life trajectory, ultimately benefiting the organization. It is incumbent upon the supervisor to seek an understanding of the root cause of disruptive behaviors. It is wise to seek opportunities to evaluate the needs of an employee or departmental area to identify the root causes of employee disengagement or poor behaviors. Often, overwhelming organizational processes can cause employee stress, or an employee may feel a lack of support. These circumstances can be breeding grounds for negative behaviors. Hence, consistent and honest communication with employees and mindful observation of employee moods and attitudes can help gauge organizational climates.  

An employee’s performance should never come as a surprise. When it comes time for performance evaluations, honest employee evaluations regarding expectations for professional growth and development can assist managers and leaders in modeling and defining the desired expectations of a professional work culture that holds employees accountable for their behaviors. Performance Reviews and communication regarding employee improvement should be viewed and leveraged as a tool and not a chore to demonstrate and outline the work and contributions an employee has provided throughout a year.  

Taking the time to remind employees that they are valuable members of the organization and the critical role each person contributes to the success of the mission and goals is a start to transforming behavior. Let employees know that their performance and role matter in the organization’s grand scheme. Commit to investing in employees in the areas where they may be deficient. Once they know their supervisor and manager care, they will likely reciprocate with increased job satisfaction and productivity. If not, then due process and due diligence has been executed and are actions that can still improve organizational culture and morale.  

When leaders make reasonable faith efforts to provide course correction, the employee is held fully accountable for responding and behaving as a representative of the organization and as a co-worker. A key responsibility of managers is to assist a poorly behaving employee in improving for the sake of the employee’s career, the organization, other employees and one’s managerial and professional credibility. These actions will ensure that one communicates and supervises appropriately for organizational efficiency and effectiveness and to maintain positive morale.

Author: Elaine Ahumada, DPA – Dr. Elaine Ahumada has been teaching Public Administration and Public Policy courses over the past twenty years. She is the Director of the Doctoral Program in Public Administration at California Baptist University and has extensive practitioner experience in non-profit consulting and serving on boards for regional non-profits in Southern California. [email protected] 

Author: Tanya S. Harris, DPA – Dr. Tanya Harris is a licensed Certified Public Accountant and the Assistant Auditor-Controller for Riverside County, California where she has served for the last twenty years.  She also has extensive private sector business experience.  Dr. Harris is also an Adjunct Professor teaching Public Administration courses at California Baptist University. [email protected] and [email protected] 

Author: Megan D. Carthen-Jackson, DPA – Dr. Carthen Jackson serves as Vice President of Operations and Human Resources for Blue Star Families. Her background includes public sector, non-profit, K-12, and higher education. Dr. Carthen-Jackson also serves as an Adjunct Professor at California Baptist University, Mt. San Jacinto Community College, and UMASS Global. [email protected] and [email protected]   

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