Extending Federal Employee Probation to Two Years?

A bill has been favorably reported by committee to significantly increase the length of a probationary period for a federal employee.

Should the federal government fire more people? How many should be fired?

No one knows what the number should be but we do know how many are actually fired. According to Jeff Neal in his article Should the Government Fire More People?:

In Fiscal 2016, the number fired was 10,519. At the end of fiscal 2016 the government had 2,097,038 employees, so roughly 1 in 200  or 0.5% of employees were fired. If we look only at permanent employees, 9,579 of 1,951,334 employees were fired (1 in 204 or 0.49%). The VA fired 2,575 employees (1 in 145 or 0.69 percent) in FY2016.

In some cases, an employee resigns rather than having an official record of having been removed from a federal job. As a result, the actual number of employees who leave federal service is higher than the reported number of people fired.

He also noted in the same article that if the federal government fired employees at the same rate as the private sector, about 25,000 people would be fired or laid off in a year. And, with the perceptions from federal employees and managers about problem employees who collect a paycheck but do not perform well, there may be a backlog of poor performers who would likely be removed from their federal positions if it were easier to do so.

House Committee Report Issued on Extending Probationary Period

The Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service Act of 2017 (the EQUALS Act) is the subject of a report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It looks at the issue of hiring qualified federal employees from a different perspective.

Proposing to Extend the Probationary Period

HR 4182 considers the issue of a probationary period for federal employees. This bill would modify probationary periods for positions within the competitive service and the Senior Executive Service. It would extend the probationary period for appointments to the competitive service and initial appointments as supervisors and managers to two years after the conclusion of formal training or upon receipt of any applicable formal license. The bill would also require a certification by agencies at the completion of the probationary period. The certification would confirm the appointment should be final.

The bill would extend the probationary period for Senior Executive Service members to two years, and makes changes to eligibility for employee appeal rights to conform to the longer probationary period.

Currently, most probationary period for federal employees are one year.

Purpose of a Probationary Period

The probationary period provides employees with the chance to understand what is required of them to be successful in the job for which they have been selected before becoming a career federal employee.

The probationary period also gives Uncle Sam time to evaluate an employee’s job performance and to decide if an appointment to the civil service should be finalized.

Differences Between Being a Probationary Employee and Career Employee

There are significant differences between being a probationary employee and being a career federal employee.

A probationary employee can be quickly removed without the lengthy, complicated appeal process available to a career federal employee. Generally, to fire a probationary employee all an agency has to do is issue a written notice of termination. The notice includes explanation as to why the agency considers the employee’s performance or conduct unacceptable.

It is much easier for an agency to remove an employee during the probationary period. After being converted to career status, an employee is covered by significant legal protections that enable a person to appeal the removal from federal service. The appeal rights include appealing a removal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) or filing a grievance which usually includes the possibility of an arbitrator reviewing the agency’s action.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found in 2015 that the removal process for poorly performing employees can take six months to a year, and sometimes can take a longer time to complete the process.

The committee report noted the probationary period is not used as intended for a couple of reasons. In occupations where training takes substantial time, supervisors may only have a few months of work to judge an employees’ performance. Also, supervisors are sometimes unaware that an employee’s probationary period is expiring and why that may be important to the agency and to the employee.

The EQUALS Act is designed to improve agency use of the probationary period. It would require supervisors to be notified 30 days in advance of the scheduled completion of a probationary period. It would also require agencies to certify an employee has successfully completed the probationary period.

This bill is currently given a 20% chance of being approved. If it is approved by the House, that possibility of approval will go up substantially, although any final bill may be significantly altered before going to the president for signature.

Equal Bill Committee Report

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