Federal supervisors and managers have a difficult job. They work in an environment of competing priorities, limited resources, and high expectations and visibility.
These same supervisors directly affect the retention, engagement, and productivity of good employees. Therefore, agencies need to ensure that the supervisors and managers they select have the skills necessary to work effectively.
New supervisors and managers are required to serve a probationary period to provide agencies an opportunity to evaluate their performance before finalizing the appointments. If a candidate does not perform satisfactorily, the agency can remove the individual from that supervisory position. When used correctly, probation is an effective predictor of future job success and can help ensure that the Federal Government has high-quality leaders.
However, agencies rarely use the supervisory probationary period to take action against unsuccessful probationers. Data from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Central Personnel Data File indicates that agencies took action against just over one-half of 1 percent of new supervisors for failing to successfully complete the probationary period. In other words, only about 6 out of every 1,000 new supervisors fail the probationary period. Given the weaknesses MSPB has previously identified in agency leadership hiring and development practices, it seems unlikely that so few Federal supervisors would fail.
Proposal to change the probationary period
The probationary period has recently garnered attention from policy makers. For instance, a bill proposal advancing through Congress, the Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service Act of 2017 (EQUALS Act), would change several aspects of the probationary period for new competitive service employees and newly appointed supervisors and managers.
One of the proposals is to change the length of the periods to 2 years to allow more time to assess new hires. Unfortunately, this change alone will likely not help achieve desired results for supervisors and managers because the lengths of their probationary periods—unlike the initial appointment probationary period—were never set in law or regulation. Instead, the regulations gave agency heads the authority to determine the lengths of probation appropriate to the supervisory and managerial positions (5 CFR § 315.905).
Despite having this flexibility, few agencies have used it. In 2016, MSPB sent a questionnaire to members of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council. Eighteen of the 22 respondents told us that their probationary periods were 1 year, and only 2 indicated that probation length is a barrier to effectively using the probationary period.
Barriers to effectively using the probationary period
We then asked agencies what barriers prevent the effective use of the supervisory and managerial probationary periods. The two barriers cited most by agencies were supervisors’ unwillingness to take actions against probationers and lack of available positions in which to place ineffective probationers.
Discomfort taking actions
Several agencies agreed that supervisors’ discomfort with taking actions against ineffective supervisory and managerial probationers is a barrier. This is a longstanding problem in Government, and Federal employees have commonly cited the management of poor performers as a workforce issue in various surveys.
There are numerous reasons a Federal manager may not want to separate a new supervisor or manager. For instance, the probationer could have technical skills the organization seeks to preserve, separation could cause morale problems in the organization, or the agency might not have an available position in which to place the unsuccessful probationer (see below).
MSPB’s 2009 report Managing for Engagement—Communication, Connection, and Courage also identified insufficient training as a key contributor to lack of action and recommended several ways that agencies can help improve supervisors’ ability to deal with poor performers.
Another common barrier cited by agencies was the placement of a failed probationer. Under current law, a failed supervisory or managerial probationer is removed from the position but is not necessarily terminated from the organization. An unsuccessful probationer who previously held a position in the competitive service and completed the initial appointment probationary period would be returned to a position in the agency of no lower grade and pay than the position previously held.
There are many reasons that placement could be viewed as a barrier. First, the organization may not have a vacant position available, particularly in times of downsizing and hiring freezes. Second, the continued presence of the unsuccessful probationer could create uncomfortable situations within the work unit, potentially lowering morale. In addition, the probationer could feel resentment or embarrassment toward the reassignment, possibly undermining performance in the new position.
Altering the system to require terminating unsuccessful probationers would pose additional barriers. The organization would lose the technical expertise the probationer holds and that likely resulted in the probationer being promoted in the first place. It could also create a disincentive for current employees to risk accepting a supervisory position. In addition, if a manager is not comfortable taking such an action when the person will still be assured a paycheck, it is unlikely that they will be comfortable firing the candidate outright—especially a candidate who did well enough in the previous job to warrant selection for promotion to a supervisory position.
Other identified barriers include the limited ability of probationers’ supervisors to evaluate performance, lack of training for those supervisors, lack of time for them to spend working with probationers, and lack of knowledge about tools available to help carry out their responsibilities in working with probationers.
To more effectively use the supervisory and managerial probationary periods, agencies should focus attention on the barriers that make it difficult to take action against underperforming supervisors. In the future, MSPB will also address some steps agencies can take, including valuable aspects of the EQUALS Act, that could help agencies improve their probationary practices.
Laura Shugrue is a Senior Research Analyst with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and has worked in the Federal human resources field for over 20 years.
This column was originally published in the U.S. Merit System Protection Board’s newsletter, Issues of Merit, and has been re-posted here with permission from the author. Visit http://www.mspb.gov/studies to read more of MSPB’s newsletters and studies on topics related to Federal human capital management, particularly findings and recommendations from their independent research.