Pay Fairness: Views From the Federal Workforce

Columns on federal pay always prompt strongly stated comments that confirm the General Schedule system is broken. Two recent articles by author Howard Risher are no exception. Risher says that employee stories of personal experience should be read by every leader concerned about government and about achieving agency goals. He highlights some of the most telling comments from users on his recent articles on federal pay.

Columns on federal pay always prompt strongly stated comments that confirm the General Schedule system is broken. Employee stories of personal experience should be read by every leader concerned about government and about achieving agency goals. The last several years have caused what may be irreparable harm to the sense of commitment of thousands of federal employees. The resentment and anger is deep seated. It is unlikely they will ever feel the same sense of engagement.

The comments on my two latest articles on revising the General Schedule system are no exception. See Breaking the Impasse on Federal Pay and Pay Fairness Should Be a Priority. I’ve included some of the comments left by users on these articles with my thoughts below.

User Mick Taylor said:

“Well, all the comments below confirm one thing in the article: Morale stinks. Been a fed for 31 years and had a terrific career with many challenges, but the idea of trashing the position description and the archaic performance plan to take my current position to a level that demands more of me (and them to recognize that reality) scares the living crap out of my management and generates nothing but push back from HR. I feel bad for young, innovative feds just starting out in their careers in this politically-toxic environment. You can almost guarantee barely acceptable public service when people are treated as whipping posts. [Looking ahead] the greater threat I detect is the lack of training, skill, and motivational capability at the management level.”

The GS system has no true defenders at this point. The most positive thread running through the comments is that the alternatives will be worse. No one argued the GS system is meeting government’s needs. For instance, user “OLDGeezer” said:

“ . . the one good thing about keeping the GS system, is at least you know that the pay system can’t get worse, which seems to have happened in the few cases where a replacement has been tried on a large scale.”

The prospect of switching to pay for performance triggers is the red flag. Many employees are convinced the practice cannot work. The common thread is that managers cannot be trusted. It’s the “Friends and beer drinking buddies of supervisors” who will get the raises. That concern runs through the comments. Take this comment from user “C.S.” for example:

“Pay for performance IS NOT the answer. Friends and beer drinking buddies of supervisors would get a raise while those who bust their hump and do what is right get nothing. The ‘good old boys’ theory.”

Another user commented, “It doesn’t matter what kind of pay system there is. The buddy system with supervisors will always exist with favorite employees. The basic theory of who you know and/or who you . . . will always continue [to control pay decisions].”

One HR specialist said, “As an HR Specialist, I watched [NSPS] pay pools turn into a three ring circus with favoritism a pretty heavy occurrence. Your pay pool decision was based on how well your supervisor wrote and if your director was willing to talk you up in the pay pool meetings. If you wrote well but, your supervisor did not, you were sunk.”

No performance system will be seen as ‘fair’ if it requires either managers or employees to draft statements describing accomplishments. There are several unavoidable and unsolvable problems with that approach. One user commented:

“I was a GS-14 manager who experienced both GS and NSPS. I agree that the GS system is beyond repair. I was hopeful that NSPS would be better, but a combination of flaws in the system and poor implementation made me glad to see it go. One flaw was that it heavily relied on employees to self-promote themselves in the system, however not all employees had the skills or desire to put a big effort towards giving themselves a glowing performance write up. . . . I suspect the flaws in NSPS could’ve been fixed, but the poor implementation of it was beyond hope.”

The comments related to NSPS confirm the performance system was overly bureaucratic. The pay pool idea violated the tenets of fairness. In hindsight NSPS had no chance of gaining acceptance.

To make a point, managers in the private sector are not appreciably different. Bias and cronyism are not unique to government. But companies have developed ways to minimize the favoritism.

In the end the ‘GS system’ is only a schedule of salaries. By itself, it has no impact on the day to day experience of working in a federal agency. It is clear, however, the quality of supervision and the fairness of their decisions is a widely shared concern. The following is similar to a number of comments:

“I’m in an agency where most of the bosses don’t value their people, drive them into the ground, and are dumbfounded when they quit and go somewhere else. It’s the good ole” boy/girl system and they only way you will ever get a raise of any kind, is to brown nose and suck up. I agree we need a better way to dump the dead weight, but right now the GS system is it. Allegedly our managers are paid to lead and innovate; I assure you there is none of it going on. They all go along to get along, because they don’t want anything to screw up their next promotion. Just because they are in charge, doesn’t mean they know what is going on or care.”

One proven answer to the problem is to conduct a 360 review, giving employees the opportunity to provide feedback to their managers. In the first year that feedback should be provided only to managers to give them a chance to understand their strengths and weaknesses. As stated in the comment that follows, the feedback can be ‘eye opening’ but it will be invaluable to anyone committed to being an effective manager. In the second year that feedback should be made available to the managers and leaders above them. This is a serious step but it should be mandatory in organizations that want to improve.

“The most important point I thought made [in the column] was the use of 360 reviews, and their use to evaluate supervisors performance from above and below. I took advantage of the opportunity to get one as a supervisor and found it eye opening and valuable. I think others would too. People won’t say to your face what they can say anonymously. And you can get some useful input into how your efforts are perceived by your employees, peers, and superiors. And having all of that anonymous information from every level of an organization to objectively evaluate an employee would be a much better way of evaluating performance and effectiveness than what we use today.”

In the end employee concerns are justified; mistakes were made. With NSPS, the transition to the pay systems would likely have been successful if:

  • managers and employees were involved in the planning,
  • the performance management system was adequately tested with managers;
  • pay pool decisions were adequately assessed at the end of each year for bias and discrimination, and corrective action taken (the pay pool idea should never have been adopted);
  • managers and employees were asked each year for feedback on their experience and the system improved;
  • and DoD had carved out a role for unions in the system.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who focuses on pay and performance. His career extends over 40 years and includes years managing consulting practices for two national firms. He recently became the editor of the journal Compensation and Benefits Review. He has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.