Does the Federal Government Give Out Career Promotions That Aren’t Warranted?

Does performance management reward the best employees, or are promotions just awarded for being in the job?

Rewarding Good Performance or Handing Out Promotions?

Most experts describe “performance management” as a process designed to reward the best employees and eliminate the worst. In my experience, Uncle Sam’s bureaucracy hasn’t fared well on either end of that spectrum. Budgets for awards are commonly scant, and actions to hold poor performers accountable are rare.

The paucity of unacceptable performance cases is in part due to the government’s “career ladder promotion” system. Tens of thousands of Feds are advanced in pay and job complexity annually. Some of them aren’t ready to be elevated. My own story may prove illustrative.

Time in Grade Yields More Money

After 5 years as a Service Repetitive with the Social Security Administration, I lateraled into a Staffing Specialist position with the Department of the Navy. Staffing wasn’t my career ambition but positioned me to eventually become a Labor/Employee Relations Specialist (LERS). That was the career I wanted.

As I applied for the Staffing job, I learned that, if selected, I would advance via career (non-competitive) promotions by two grades annually until I reached the GS-11 level. I was amazed and delighted. As a Service Representative, I had advanced by career promotions from a GS-5 to a 6 and then the GS-7 level, where the job topped out.

As my first year in human resources (HR) was coming to an end, I was plucked out of staffing and assigned to lead a team that would convert 8,500 Navy civilians from the simplest of performance appraisal systems (3 boxes checked on an IBM punch card) to the elaborate system of critical elements and performance standards familiar to most readers. As I began working full-time on appraisals, I also advanced from my familiar GS-7 to the GS-9 level.

“You’re not ready”

As the year-long project concluded, I had successfully negotiated a reassignment to an Employee Relations Specialist position – the job I coveted. I was also nearing the time-in-grade leading to the GS-11 (“full performance” salary level.

My new boss was a former union president with a reputation as a curmudgeon. He put new employees like me through a process that felt like hazing. His expertise was undeniable, and he demanded a lot from newbies. I was eager to learn and endure whatever humiliations he might employ as I set out to prove myself.

I was summoned to his office within a month of arriving in the LER division. He told me that he had received paperwork for my certification to the GS-11 level and was inclined to deny me the career promotion. In his estimation, I was new to the job and not yet performing at the GS-9 level. He felt I should wait before becoming an 11. I was stunned.

His logic was sound. As an Employee Relations Specialist, I barely performed at the GS-9 level. As I regained my composure, it became clear he didn’t want to follow through on deferring my promotion. I proved an adequate negotiator and got my big salary bump right on time. Like most who receive such promotions, I proved myself worthy in short order.

 “Pay me now or…”

The issue I’m raising here is not discussed much in government. Annual non-competitive promotions, and the assumption that they are granted based on the calendar, can lead to big problems down the road.

Not long after garnering my GS-11, I was dealing with cases involving people who, years into their careers, were performing below grade level. These individuals lacked the skill set needed to successfully earn their full salaries. The reasons are many and varied. Among these are:

  • A system that forces management to decide on career advancement without much time to consider a negative decision;
  • A lack of documentation to support such a finding, should the employee grieve or file an EEO complaint;
  • Decades of a management/HR culture that has failed to interrupt career promotion advancement; and
  • A distaste for delivering seriously bad news to someone who has no history of misconduct but is simply “not making the grade.”

We will never know how many federal employees are over-graded or underperforming. We know that actions taken to confront and remedy these cases are few and far between. Should such an action be challenged (by a grievance, EEO complaint, or an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board), the burden of proof is low, but the documentation required by HR and legal offices is extensive. 

Assuming performance cases are about competence rather than attitude or effort, the blame probably rests with agency management. Who selected them for the job? Who allowed them to pass their probationary period? …and who promoted them to a grade/pay level beyond their competence?

The Simpler Path

Promotion actions are speculative. Whether conferred through competitive procedures or as the next rung on a career ladder, they are made with the hope that the lower-graded employee will succeed in a more challenging job. The Peter Principle reminds us that, in a hierarchical organization (your agency), people eventually rise to their level of incompetence

Preventing or delaying career promotions when there is reasonable doubt that an employee can fully perform the higher graded/paid position would be more economical than admitting they can’t after their advancement. Even though I could be promoted to the GS-11 level without competing, I had no legal right to the higher-level job.

Employees who challenge a career ladder promotion’s denial (or deferral) are likely to lose. All my old boss would have needed to show a judge was his reasoning as to why I wasn’t ready for the challenges of the higher-level job. Leaving me at the GS-9 level would have been both prudent and legal.

If a discriminatory motive lurks behind such an adverse decision, I hope the biased management officials are challenged and lose. Without illegal bias or retaliation, the question before a trier of fact would be: Who is vested in determining if someone has the requisite potential to succeed in a higher-graded position? That is a management right by law.

An Ounce of Prevention…

Given the number of Feds who have experienced working with folks whose capabilities fall short of their grade, a focus on prevention seems logical. Having a small percentage of employees eligible for career ladder promotions wait until they are truly ready for work challenges at a higher level is obviously in the government’s interest.

Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has nothing to say on this subject. The only section of the Code of Federal Regulations that references career promotions reads as follows:

No employee shall receive a career ladder promotion unless his or her current rating of record under part 430 of this chapter is “Fully Successful” (level 3) or higher. In addition, no employee may receive a career ladder promotion who has a rating below “Fully Successful” on a critical element that is also critical to performance at the next higher grade of the career ladder.

I can find no specific guidance from the powers that be concerning deferring or denying career promotions in an agency’s interest. This absence of clear procedures, advice, and/or guidance is regrettable. It is reasonable to encourage agencies to the possibility of having over-graded employees in their workforces.

On the other hand, guidance regarding the withholding of step increases is prolific. Those cases are similarly time-bound and non-competitive, but the two have significant differences. Step increases don’t involve changes in the position description. They reward seniority in the same job and grade. Career ladder promotions are just that – promotions.

Withheld and delayed step increases are considered adverse actions and are appealable to the MSPB. A similar deferral of a career promotion isn’t appealable. The former requires acceptance that the individual’s performance in the job is acceptable. The latter requires a determination that their performance in a different and more challenging job will become acceptable.

It’s No Small Matter

My seminar audiences (supervisors, managers, and union officials) quickly acknowledge that they have experienced coworkers who are/were over-graded at least two levels. Many are acknowledged to have slipped into journeyman or full-performance level jobs when they shouldn’t have. The costs associated with this personnel issue are considerable, as I noted in a long-ago article.

As an LER Specialist, I prepared removal paperwork for unacceptable performance cases. As a non-attorney, I presented those cases before the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Those unfortunate individuals had been performing unacceptably for years.

Assuring that people with questionable potential for the next level are identified well before career promotions are due would be the better action plan. This will require changes from the Staffing side of HR. OPM and their parent, the Office of Management and Budget, have yet to fully address and develop procedures regarding career ladder promotions and negative determinations.

HR’s job is to support fairness while focusing on the best workforce possible. Attracting, recruiting, and hiring competent people is essential. So is a recognition that some employees aren’t working out as hoped.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to