Federal Employees News Digest

Are feds really ‘fire-proof’?

Although I can’t prove it, I suspect that the number one complaint—from ordinary taxpayers —about the federal civil service is that feds are fire-proof:  that once in they are installed in their jobs, they are there for the duration. Regardless of how they perform.

Before you march on my mansion on the Potomac, remember I’m not saying that.  I’m just saying that’s what other people are saying. Presidents from Roosevelt to Trump have complained about it. Unresponsive, fire-proof feds. Remember Jimmy Carter’s Civil Service Reform Act. The idea was to make the top levels of the government more ‘mobile’ and more ‘responsive’ to political appointees. The current administration has taken it to a whole new level, proposing the Schedule F category which, as one career fed told me, “be like Schedule C on steroids. Thousands more people at the middle and top who were responsive to the politicos alone.”  Jobs now held by civil servants that would be converted to the new F schedule where they could be fired at will. Given we’ve had four secretaries of Defense in four years, this is not out of the question!

While it’s not true that feds are fire-proof they enjoy—f sometimes after an elongated probation period—more job protections that many if not most private sector workers. So what’s wrong with that?

Time for a stroll down memory lane:

My first newspaper job was very low level. As a messenger.  I was going to night school. Still in the Army Reserves (meeting I could be recalled anytime), which didn’t make me the most desirable employee.  But I hung on and wangled a job in the newsroom working as a semi-copy boy (which required a four-year degree) and reporters assistant. When in the building, I sat in the art department. The city (later managing) editor was a very, very tough old-line newspaperman. He was considered good, but tough. A tad political. Cold but brilliant.

The paper had assembled a good staff.  Among the top 10 in the nation. Its one problem was turnover. Talented people were always leaving. Lots of going away parties. People leaving to pursue other careers. Lots of drinking. On the job and off. And lots of going away parties with more drinking.  It was like a low-budget version of the TV show MadMen. 

While I was a tenant in the Art Department the Managing Editor (ME) hired a new are director. The previous one have just quit.  The ME was the number to guy (and they were all guys) in the hierarchy, subject only to a newly hired hotshot Executive Editor.  He had the full support of the owner-publisher, a woman.  Anyhow, the ME hired a new art editor.  He was considered among the best, but with a problem.  He was a recovering alcoholic (not unusual in the business), leaving with a second family on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  It was job to convince him to come back to D.C. in December to take a rather high pressure job in an on-the-make-newspaper. But he did.

Less than a month after he was hired, he posted his resignation. He was returning to his first love: Unemployment!

Those of us on the staff were used to the turnover, still…

The about-to-exit art director ran into a long-time columnist for the paper.  The columnist said he was sorry the art guy was leaving after such a short time. The art director said he was too. Turns out, the art director blubbered out, he didn’t quit. He was fired by the ME.  He didn’t want to leave but was told to quietly (key word, quietly) find another job. Then not to slam the door on his way out.

To make a long story short the columnist told the art director to go see the EE. The man in charge. The man who had hired him and flown him from Spain to D.C.

He did. Say the EE, who was flabbergasted. He said he’d been told the art director wasn’t satisfied.  Not that he had been quietly told to leave by his deputy.

Cut to chase: The Art Director was told to stay put. Which he did for many years.  The ME, who had secretly fired scores of people over the years, was told to pack his bags.  He was finally gone after ruining or ending—by his own whim—hundreds of careers.  But what a price.

The union finally got into the act and—with people joining it—got some power. The newspaper went on to become one of the best, best-known in the world. Still is. Win-win.

Being able to fire people easily isn’t always the road to excellence in an organization.


2021 Digital Almanac

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