Considering Prior Discipline in the Selection Process: Can You or Can’t You? Lessons Learned

What about the use of prior discipline in the selection process? Can it be used? Should it be used? Readers had a variety of comments and opinions.

The article Considering Prior Discipline in the Selection Process had a lot of interest and comments. While many agreed, a number of those who did strongly suggested caution and the consideration of a number of issues.

I thought it might be interesting to summarize the comments so readers could see the general reaction. It is my fault if I mischaracterized your comment so I’ll apologize in advance for doing so.

I would also like to address some of the issues raised. I am sure you are all used to me having an opinion and believe it or not, I’m very grateful for your response whether you agree or not. Thanks for commenting.

Who Commented, Where are They from, Did They Agree to Picking Peter:

Job Title Agency Premise (Pick Peter)
Director DoD Agree
Senior HR Spec HUD Agree (be careful)
HR Spec Small Agency Agree (do it right)
HR Spec., retired (none) Agree (be careful)
Labor (Spec.?) DoD Agree
Personnel Officer USAF Agree
HR Director (Retired) USAF Document Action
Electronics Tech FAA Agree
HR Specialist Cabinet Level Dept. Thought it was a rare situation
Int’l. Prog. Mgmt. Spec. AMCOM (DOD) Agree
HR Spec DOD Agree in theory
Officer Manager Forest Service Agree
Personnel Officer USAF Agree
Trainer DoD Neither agree nor disagree
HR Spec Navy HRO Exercise Caution
Educated DC none listed Disagree
Programmer A Big One Mixed Feelings
Mgmt. Support Spec. SSA Agree
Civil Engineer USBR (USDA) Agency would ignore for EEO reasons
Program Analyst SSA Disagree
Training USAF Disagree
Director USDA Agree (I think)
Director of Policy & Eval. MSPB Agree w/reservations
Employee Relations Advisor USDA Agree
Director USDA Raised a Question
HR Specialist IRS Agree (I think)

Picking Peter or Not, Things to Consider

1. Nature, Recency and Relevance of Discipline

This was a major concern of a number of commentors. I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact I see another use of the “Douglas Factors”. Managers know how to use them to assess the seriousness of a penalty. (Thanks to NIH for putting them on the WEB) I think they offer a number of good considerations to use as a guide to decide the relationship of prior discipline to a selection if you add factors such as the recency of the discipline as well as the relevance to a jobholder’s success.

2. Positive or Negative Considerations

The MSPB Director of Policy and Evaluation says he wants us to consider more positive factors first and recognize the risks of Peter having a secret past. While I admit to a usually strong bias in favor of whatever the Board has to say based on the high quality of both its decisions and studies, I think the comment a little naïve when considering selections in which the pool isn’t always the “Best and Brightest”.

The hardest selections are frequently those in jobs, supervisory or not, in the equivalent of GS-5 to about GS-12 out in the country and maybe higher in DC where classification standards simply don’t apply or aren’t much considered. These jobs often involve real production work and may be critical despite the grade. Usually the higher you go, the more the pyramid narrows and the bigger the pool to choose from. The bigger the pool, the better the choices. At the bottom of the pyramid, choices are usually more limited and considerations a little grittier. To be brutally frank, many selecting officials for these jobs are absolutely dependent on the selectee for their own success. This is the playing field in which most EEO complaints surface and where selection training is often spotty.

3. Where Consideration of Discipline Fits In

A highly placed but unnamed source in my household (and a retired Agency HR Director) when consulted on this topic says it’s a factor that is wisely limited to the sole consideration of the selecting official. She says it’s a factor that, while considered, is rarely cited. A selecting official would focus, of course, in any defense of the selection on the positive attributes of the selectee not the damning factors of those unselected for the job. You must admit, she has a point.

4. “Double Jeopardy”

No offense but this is a pretty silly concept. If a variety of experience, good performance, awards, ability to learn, taking responsibility, etc. are factors that predict success then it makes common sense that misbehavior, lack of concern for rules. inattention to duty, and the myriad of other factors on which discipline rest also must count. I don’t have numbers but would be amazed if more than a single digit of Federal employees have ever been disciplined.

5. Smart Selection

Pick the very best candidate for the job. Get some help making a selection objective. I was very troubled by the commentors both public and private (by email) who said they were instructed to pick a person for another reason instead of someone objectively considered the best candidate by a selecting official or panel. I went to Panama in the early 90s to train U.S. Canal Commission employees. They told me that the purpose of Panamanian public service was to hire people–not to accomplish a mission. As a result, the government was intensely corrupt, nothing worked and crime was rampant. It’s not hard to get there particularly when it is unclear whose job it is to advance a merit system and safeguard it.

The opinions stated above are mine and those of the commentors to the article. Thanks for responding. There were many interesting insights.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.