Report Suggests Improvements for Handling Federal Employee Misconduct

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By on August 15, 2018 in Human Resources with 0 Comments

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A new report from the Government Accountability Office discusses ways that federal agencies can more effectively address employee misconduct.

GAO said that an average of less than 1 percent (17,000) of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees are formally disciplined for misconduct annually. While this is a very small number, GAO notes that even a few cases of employee misconduct can have significant impacts on workplace morale and impede an agency’s efforts to achieve its mission.

Based on data from the Office of Personnel Management, federal agencies made 10,249 suspensions, 7,411 removals, and 114 demotions for misconduct in 2016. However, GAO said that because of weaknesses in OPM’s data on employee misconduct, which is provided by the agencies, OPM is unable to accurately target supervisory training to address misconduct, and decision-makers do not know the full extent or nature of this misconduct.

Examples of Misconduct

Examples of employee misconduct can include:

  • time and attendance infractions
  • intoxication
  • workplace violence
  • physical aggression toward an employee
  • improper use of a government-issued credit card
  • misuse of government equipment (such as viewing pornography or gambling)
  • use of public position for private gain
  • behavior that affects national security

Challenges in Addressing Employee Misconduct

The GAO report went into a very lengthy explanation of the process agencies and supervisors have to go through to address federal employee misconduct issues under US Code. This graphic from the GAO report illustrates the process:

Image showing a flow chart of the federal employee misconduct process Using Chapter 75, Subchapter II and Chapter 77 of the U.S. Code

Process for Identifying and Addressing Employee Misconduct Using Chapter 75, Subchapter II and Chapter 77 of the U.S. Code

Given the complex and lengthy process, GAO notes, “Our prior work on poor performers found that adverse actions, including suspensions, demotions, and removals, take time to resolve and because of a lack of internal support, concerns over litigation and other factors, supervisors [therefore] may be hesitant to initiate required procedures outlined in the United States Code.”

GAO also said that supervisors may not report misconduct because of fear that an employee may counter with his or her own complaint. Additionally, how an agency approaches dealing with misconduct can influence the actions supervisors ultimately take in dealing with misconduct.

Ways to Better Prevent and Address Employee Misconduct

The report said that agencies can do some of the following to better handle misconduct:

  • Utilize tables of penalties, lists of recommended disciplinary actions for various types of misconduct
  • Make full use of probationary periods
  • Maintain effective lines of communication and collaboration between the human resources office staff, line-level management, and agencies’ legal counsel
  • Set clear expectations and engage employees
  • Conduct ongoing training for supervisors and hold them accountable for addressing misconduct quickly when it arises


GAO recommends that OPM, while working with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, do the following:

  1. Take steps to improve the quality of data collected on misconduct
  2. Leverage lessons learned to help agencies address misconduct
  3. Improve guidance on training supervisors and human resources staff on addressing misconduct

OPM partially concurred with two recommendations, and disagreed with the first, stating that its guidance has been successfully relied upon by agencies. GAO maintains the action is needed to help strengthen oversight.

Federal Employee Misconduct: Actions Needed to Ensure Agencies Have Tools to Effectively Address Misconduct

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About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.