Accountability: Prerequisites Required
By Scott Bieber, M.P.A.
Remember your college days, scouring the course catalog for a class to fill an open elective spot? Just when you thought you found the right course, you saw that dreaded notation: “prerequisites required.” Fast forward some years, and prerequisites remain a concern. Most managerial jobs demand them. One of a manager’s most important responsibilities, holding employees accountable for their performance, falls into this category.
As organizations struggle to function with fewer resources, managers must hold their employees accountable for their responsibility to improve efficiency. Unfortunately, many supervisors fail to meet the prerequisites that accountability demands: capability and responsibility. Accountability comprises only one point of the personnel management triangle.
Supervisors and managers must view all three points of this triangle in concert. Before increased accountability improves productivity, employees must possess the capabilities and responsibilities for their assigned tasks. Because of this process, the prerequisites of capability and responsibility play a vital role in an organization’s success.
How can employers hold personnel responsible for their duties if these employees simply are incapable of completing their tasks? Whether at the hiring, training, or development stage, the organization needs to ensure that personnel truly qualify for their job. To meet the capability prerequisite, organizational leaders must hire candidates with the necessary skills, provide them with proper training, and develop them as they progress in the organization. If supervisors accomplish this, they more likely will employ workers who contribute meaningfully to the agency’s mission.
During the hiring stage, employers must identify the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities for a particular position and honestly communicate these criteria to job candidates. When an organization hires an incapable candidate, the hiring authority remains accountable when that employee fails to meet job expectations. The agency can, of course, terminate the individual and refill the position, but this process wastes time and resources.
Even when employers hire only fully qualified candidates, they still must design a new employee-training program to introduce new hires to the specific tasks and procedures of their jobs. When employees lack proper training, supervisors cannot hold them fully accountable for their shortcomings. If, however, organizations provide personnel with the appropriate training and they still fail to perform their duties, then only the employees remain accountable for their lack of performance.
Commander Bieber serves with the Vancouver, Washington, Police Department, and also as president/CEO of an employment investigations company.
Next, for personnel to maintain and improve their capabilities throughout their tenure, organizations must commit time and resources to career development. If employees never receive formal instruction beyond entry-level training, their skills will not progress past this point. If agencies expect their employees to complete more challenging tasks, supervisors and managers must mentor and guide them in their career development. Managers also should encourage qualified employees from inside the organization to transition into roles with greater responsibility. When supervisors promote from within, the internal hire seldom surprises the team the way a lateral hire might.
As with capability, how can supervisors hold employees accountable for their performance if they fail to give personnel ownership over their work? Supervisors can gauge performance adequately only after they give employees responsibility over their jobs, empower them with the appropriate authority, and provide them with the necessary resources. Then, it is up to employees to execute their jobs and supervisors to expect a certain level of competency.
Too often, however, managers feel insecure when their employees operate without constant direction and oversight. Micromanagers do not expect their personnel to accomplish tasks without specific direction; in other words, they feel troubled when subordinates take their own initiative. These managers only want their employees to perform the tasks they dictate so they can specify how and when they want them completed. While micromanagers may praise self-initiated activity in theory, they frown on it in reality.
Employees who operate beneath a micromanager feel they are not required to accomplish any tasks until they receive an edict from above. Because of this attitude, micromanagement fosters inefficiency the same way that empowerment drives efficiency. Even the most competent supervisors cannot involve themselves in all of their employees’ responsibilities; managers need to feel sufficiently confident in their personnel to not only delegate specific tasks but truly relinquish some control.
Additionally, as employees develop, they can and should wield responsibilities that match their skills and experience. People respond to challenging, meaningful work, and supervisors and managers need to provide that challenge. If employees do not receive progressively more demanding work even as their experience deepens, their development stagnates. This limits employees’ capabilities and promotes organizational inefficiencies.
THE ULTIMATE GOAL: ACCOUNTABILITY
Once supervisors firmly ingrain accountability’s prerequisites into the work environment, they can concern themselves with accountability. Many managers think of accountability as synonymous with discipline, or they use accountability to point the finger at employees and blame them if something goes wrong. Accountability, however, functions quite differently from discipline or blame. Accountability relates to expectation. Supervisors can and should expect that if they delegate a task to a capable employee, that employee will complete it satisfactorily. Further, when employees receive more challenging work, they gradually adjust to these external expectations, and their internal expectations for themselves creep higher without any formal action from their boss. Supervisors must ensure that their employees do not define accountability as blame or discipline, but, rather, an opportunity for recognition and growth.
Accountability should hold positive connotations for employees; it presents an opportunity to act independently and receive recognition for a job well done. Supervisors also should emphasize that they only will recognize efforts that exceed expectations, not just meet them. Recognizing employees who only meet minimal expectations weakens performance standards and cheapens formal recognition. Also, organizational expectations naturally should increase over time as the exceptional performance of one year sets the bar for the next.
Despite the negative perceptions of accountability, in reality, positive reinforcement figures prominently in a culture of accountability. Recognizing employees for their exceptional efforts and accomplishments enhances their sense of pride, worth, and contribution to the organization, which drives them to work harder. Not only does the quantity of their work grow but the quality improves. When employees feel that their work contributes to the success of their organization, they naturally strive to contribute more and, thus, improve with each task they complete.
Conversely, when personnel receive only seemingly menial assignments with no explanation as to their importance, they gain the impression that their supervisors hold only minimal expectations for them. Thus, these employees never feel challenged to accomplish more, and they apply only minimal effort to these tasks. The most effective managers garner the best results from their employees; this proves that when a supervisor provides meaningful work for their employees and rewards exceptional performance, personnel rise to the challenge and work to the best of their abilities.
Despite an organization’s best efforts, there always will be employees who meet expectations but never exceed them. These “bell curve” employees perform at less-than-exceptional, but nonetheless acceptable, levels. Instead of disciplining personnel who fall in this range, managers should strive to move the bell curve higher through their own management techniques. Managers should reserve discipline for those employees who truly fail to meet performance standards.
Positive reinforcement tactics may not cure every case of underperformance. Some personnel never may meet performance expectations even in a culture of accountability and positive reinforcement. Once the employer establishes the prerequisites of capability and responsibility, only the employees have ownership of their own failures; at this point, accountability should take the form of disciplinary action.
In their zeal to enforce accountability, however, managers occasionally lose sight of the difference between honest mistakes and intentional misconduct. They hinder productivity when they discipline employees who unintentionally fumble a task. To resolve this in a productive way, personnel should correct their errors (perhaps with the assistance of others) and demonstrate that they learned from the mistake. If an employee repeatedly commits the same errors and refuses to remedy them, then the disciplinary process begins.
Intentional misconduct requires vastly different remediation than mistakes. Misconduct is not about capability, responsibility, accountability, or accidental missteps. Instead, misconduct describes a situation in which an employee knowingly behaves incorrectly and, therefore, requires immediate discipline.
Supervisors and personnel alike should not view the disciplinary process as entirely negative; by design, effective discipline positively modifies behavior. If the manager disciplines successfully, employees will alter their behavior and improve their performance without further action. In rare cases, employees behave egregiously enough to deserve immediate termination; more often, however, productive discipline changes their behavior and aligns them with the organization’s expectations.
To ensure that the disciplinary process is as painless as possible, managers and supervisors always should build the proper foundation for their decisions. If managers punish personnel without proper justification, the employees likely will appeal; if the organization repeatedly invalidates managers’ disciplinary actions, the decisions quickly lose their potency.
Managers may need guidance to determine when to use formal discipline, how to keep the process fair, and how to justify their decisions. Originally written in 1966, the “Seven Tests of Just Cause” by arbitrator Carroll Daugherty remains a fantastic guide for supervisors who want to develop an effective disciplinary process. Daugherty developed seven necessary criteria for fair disciplinary action.
- Did the company give to the employee forewarning or foreknowledge of the possible or probable disciplinary consequences of the employee’s conduct?
- Was the company’s rule or managerial order reasonably related to the orderly, efficient, and safe operation of the company’s business, as well as the performance that the company properly might expect of the employee?
- Did the company, before administering discipline to an employee, make an effort to discover whether the individual did, in fact, violate or disobey a rule or order of management?
- Was the company’s investigation conducted fairly and objectively?
- At the investigation, did the “judge” obtain substantial evidence or proof that the employee was guilty as charged?
- Has the company applied its rules, orders, and penalties evenhandedly and without discrimination to all employees?
- Was the degree of discipline administered by the company in a particular case reasonably related to the seriousness of the employee’s proven offense and the record of the employee’s service with the company?1
Supervisors should apply these criteria to build the proper foundation for disciplinary action. If managers establish “just cause” through these seven tests, then they mitigate the risk that they will discipline someone without sufficient groundwork and, consequently, see their decisions overturned.
Putting the right people in the right places and letting them do their jobs seems simple, but, in reality, it demands that employers, supervisors, managers, and organizational leaders complete crucial prerequisites. These leaders must identify, hire, and develop capable employees; display the courage to give those employees responsibility and authority for their tasks; and expect a minimum standard of performance. Additionally, employees should receive positive reinforcement when they exceed those expectations, and supervisors should react appropriately when their personnel fall short.
Capability, responsibility, and accountability are mutually inclusive—it is impossible to enforce one or two without the other, yet many supervisors make the fatal flaw of only focusing on the ultimate goal of accountability. When it comes to accountability, there is no easy elective; it demands the prerequisites of capability and responsibility.