Feds Favor Easier Removal of Poor Performers

Most readers think it is too hard to fire a federal employee for poor performance

There is a common belief that it is hard to fire a federal employee who does not do well on the job. And, in fact, very few feds are fired for poor performance. (See the related article on the left hand side of this page)

What do federal employees think? Is it too hard to fire a poor performer who works for the government? Is it a real problem? Last week, we asked readers of Fedsmith.com their opinion.

We received hundreds of comments from readers. The bottom line: The vast majority believe it should be easier to remove a federal employee who does not live up to performance expectations. 74% of readers responding to our survey said they thought it should be easier to remove a federal employee for poor performance.

With the mantra of “doing more with less” having been drilled into employees in the ’90’s and with little federal hiring to replace employees who retired or quit, employees who were left behind don’t like watching their colleagues goof off all day and not suffer any consequences. And the reality apparently matches the sterotypical image according to the comments from some readers.

For example, one reader who works for the Forest Service in Arizona, says: “I have witnessed people who are GS-10 through GS-12 who spend their entire day doing their own personal business. I have also witnessed GS-5’s who do nothing but goof off for at least an entire day each week.” An employee from the VA in Minneapolis echoed this sentiment: “I’m tired of giving 110% while someone sitting next to me is present in body only.”

And an employee for USDA in Oregon says it is usually not hard to tell who the poor performers are. “The poor performer is usually the one standing around or on the phone complaining to other employees about being over worked, picked on, and/or never promoted.”

Why is it hard to fire a federal employee? Most people know it’s possible but also believe it isn’t done as often as it should be. In reading comments from readers, a definite trend emerged. A number of comments were from human resources professionals who administer the process.

A labor relations officer for the Navy in Philadelphia said this about the process: “The last 430 action I handled took 18 mos. to complete, and ended up with EEO complaints and grievances/arbitrations in a bifurcated fashion. Progressive discipline under 752 probably could have accomplished the end result quicker and the MSPB’s case law is more consistent than an arbitrator trying to satisfy each party or the EEO arena.”

A labor/employee relations manager for the VA in Kansas City echoed this sentiment: “It should not require mountains of paperwork and months or years of documentation to fire a non-productive employee.”

A human resources specialist from Bremerton, WA says there are practical reasons a poor performer won’t be fired in government. In effect, the process favors making sure the employee has a chance to succeed at the expense of the agency accomplishing its mission. “We have certainly removed poor performers, but supervisors are reluctant to assign meaningful work to poor performers for extended periods in order to build a case. If we wind up overcharging a customer for redoing work or missing a contracted completion date, we risk losing the customer….”

A human resources official with the FDIC in Chicago, says the problem stems from the Merit Systems Protection Board: “It is not the basic system that is flawed. The problem is the evolution of the MSPB system. … [I]t has become too legalistic. Much of the problem stems not only from the MSPB’s own internal regulations and requirements but from court decisions. The MSPB should streamline their requirements and Congress should look at the Judicial case law and fix the problem….”

In seeking a solution, there is plenty of blame to go around. In addition to the reader citing the problem residing with the MSPB, one labor relations specialist in Atlanta blamed supervisors for the problem: “The task of removing or downgrading an employee due to performance would be made so much easier if supervisors and managers would just do their job. It’s hard to get good documentation from them concerning specific failures in performance.”

An NTEU official also blamed managers: “These LAWS are to protect employees from managers’ prejudices or who are too lazy to do their jobs.”

A Forest Service supervisor from Michican said the fault lies with unions: “The way it is now, unionized employees are very hard to fire for poor performance. If the perform poorly, they get a chance to improve under a PIP (performance improvement plan). This is good-everyone deserves a chance. But if they DO improve, then the next time they perform poorly, even if it is the same duties being poorly performed, the previous incedence of poor performance CANNOT be used against them according to the union master agreement.”

Another union official from the USDA in Honolulu disagrees altogether and says the problem is incompetent human resources people and that it is easy to fire a federal employee (but he is keeping the secret to himself). Here are his observations: “The problem is untrained and inept human resource personnel who do not know or have a concept on how to do their jobs.

It is easy to fire a fed. Sorry, but this old-time union official is not going to tell you how. ”

Thanks to all of our readers who took the time to send in their comments and opinions.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47