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Fresh Take: Fixation on firing feds: Public Servant or Political Piñata?

An indepth look at the the current preoccupation on firing federal employees.

Part One in a Four-Part Series | Public Servant or Political Piñata?

The focus on firing federal employees is a pendulum that swings with political tides … much like outsourcing, pay-for-performance, and public-private pay parity.

And when it comes to congressional interest in firing feds, nothing fuels the fire like agency scandals—GSA conferences, VA veteran appointment backlogs, IRS targeting conservative advocacy groups, Secret Service partiers. Hearings abound—and then, a cry for action. 

It took the Merit System Protection Board 46 pages in its May 2015 report to describe how due process works when firing a federal employee. At first, MSPB likens firing a fed to terminating a private-sector employee. Then it spends the next 45 pages showing how it’s not like that at all — using an onerous recitation of the Constitution, laws, and case laws beginning with the Magna Carta. This is decidedly unhelpful.

If MSPB was to make a point, it is really a simple one. Think of federal employees as having dual status. First, they are citizens. Second, they are employees. There are things government cannot do to citizens and therefore, cannot do to its employees. This is where due process comes in, and it’s not like the private sector at all.

But the federal government does fire employees for cause, just not at the rate of termination found in the private sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private firms terminate for cause at an annual rate of 3.2 percent. According to Office of Personnel Management FedScope data, the federal government, as a whole, terminates for cause at a median rate of 0.5 percent per year. Apparently, some agencies have this process down cold.

The Top Four Terminators (of the Cabinet-level agencies) for the number of terminations per year are the departments of: (1) Veterans Affairs, (2) Homeland Security, (3) Army, (4) Treasury.

Collectively, these four accounted for 58 percent to 64 percent of all terminations per year over the past 10 years—61,891 employees in all. Combining the Department of Defense together with all of its branches of service would add another 30,000 total, putting it  at No. 1 each year for all 10 years.

But, if you look at termination rate—not just numbers—the picture changes. Termination rate looks at the number fired as a percentage of an agency's employees. Here, DHS takes the No. 1 position in eight of the 10 years, ceding the No. 1 slot to Treasury in 2006 and to Commerce in 2010.

For the 10-year period, the average firing rate for the Top Four is 0.8 percent versus the government-wide mean of 0.5 percent—and DHS wins again with an average rate of 1.01 percent per year. Agencies with the lowest average rate are the Department of Housing and Urban Development at 0.02 percent, followed by the Department of Education at 0.14 percent, with the departments of Justice, Energy, and State coming in at 0.2 percent. 

Based on these numbers, the question of whether it is impossible to fire a federal employee is answered: Obviously not. Lower rates of termination versus the private sector are due mainly to the dual status of feds, and the protections offered by the Constitution and other laws to its citizens—and that is unlikely to change.

But, anecdotally, feds already feel as if they give up their rights in order to be employed by the government—and, interestingly, many front-line supervisors feel this is even truer upon stepping into management. At the same time, good employees don’t particularly enjoy working next to poor performers so, if no action is taken, it leads to the perception that the agency tolerates poor performers.

There are two unintended consequences when an agency does not deal effectively with misconduct and poor performance. One is the negative effect on employee engagement, and the other is the subtle corrosion of leadership will.

The simple fact is there’s a lot of process preceding an outcome. But applying the process systematically and objectively can contribute positively to an agency. It shows leadership will, and that helps employees identify with positive core values and strengthens the motivation to contribute. It is also a way to learn and adapt processes so that the correct outcome is achieved more consistently. It’s hard to take big risks and fire an employee, but harder still to take no action and lose trust.

This is a tough time to be a federal employee—especially a front-line supervisor.

If Congress only works on the downside, the long-term effects exacerbate attrition and recruiting problems. Look at the VA—where attrition in the first few years of service is high, and recruiting new hires is especially challenging. 

Congress must also work on the upside. Delivering service to citizens is paramount, and it cannot be done with a beleaguered workforce exposed daily to the vortex of political whimsy and the high drama of hearings and IG investigations.


Linda Brooks Rix, founder and co-CEO of Avue Technologies, is a blogger, veterans advocate and federal human capital management expert.

Reader comments

Tue, Jun 16, 2015

I only wish Congress cared and appreciated the efforts of the federal workforce.

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