This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
The news that the Department of Veterans Affairs has removed more than 500 employees in 2017 rekindled the age-old debate about firing federal employees. Does the government fire enough people? Does it deal effectively with poor performers? Is the disciplinary and adverse action process effective?
At the risk of offending a few folks, I have to say the answer to all three questions is probably no. The government does not fire a large percentage of its employees in a typical year. The data is available in OPM’s excellent Fedscope tool. In Fiscal 2016, the number fired was 10,519. At the end of fiscal 2016 the government had 2,097,038 employees, so roughly 1 in 200 or 0.5 percent of employees were fired. If we look only at permanent employees, 9,579 of 1,951,334 employees were fired (1 in 204 or 0.49 percent). The VA fired 2,575 employees (1 in 145 or 0.69 percent) in FY2016.
The Department of Homeland Security fired 1,825 employees in 2016 (1 in 105 or 0.95 percent). Most of the DHS removals were in TSA. DHS, VA and Commerce (1 in 134 or 0.75 percent) fire more people relative to their population than most agencies and departments. In fact, they are the only departments that fire more than 1 in 200 employees (0.5 percent) per year. If you take a look at the Fedscope data, you will find some agencies firing far fewer people. One department fired 1 in 613 (0.16 percent) employees, while another fired 1 in 2,181 (0.05 percent). Direct comparisons to the private sector are not easy, but if we compare the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) “layoff and discharge” rate we see that the private sector lays off or fires about 1.2 — 1.3 percent of employees. Government rates (adding in the small number of RIFs as well) are much lower than that of the private sector. However, the private sector numbers are lumping layoffs and discharges together, most likely because the line between those is often blurred. Companies often characterize removals as layoffs, while the government does not.
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It is important to note that firing people is not the only measure of how agencies and companies deal with poor performance and misconduct. For example, it is not uncommon for an employee who is about to be fired to resign. That means the number who are “fired” is probably higher than it appears. Agencies also deal with misconduct through other disciplinary actions, such as suspensions. That said, the number is almost certainly too low, because more than two thirds of federal workers do not believe their agencies do a good job dealing with poor performers.
No one knows what the right number is. In a perfect world, the right number would be zero. Agencies would hire great people who do great work, and the rare performance/conduct problems would be resolved before getting to the point of firing people. We all know that we do not live in a perfect world, so that is never going to happen. We also know that there are a lot of reasons why the government does not do a good job in this area. They include managers with inadequate training, a process that is cumbersome and takes too long, and agencies not supporting managers who actually want to deal with problem employees. We also know from the BLS numbers that the private sector, with far fewer constraints, is not firing massive numbers of people every year. If the government rate matched the private sector, we would expect to see about 25,000 people fired or laid off per year. Given the employee and manager perceptions about problem employees, it is safe to conclude that there is a backlog of poor performers who might be fired if it were easier to do so.
So how do you fix the problem? More importantly, how do you do it without politicizing the federal workforce and having federal employees becomes pawns in a political game? The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 is not a bad start. I know there are folks who have concerns about the Act, but for the most part it is not bad legislation.
The federal civil service was designed with protections from arbitrary actions because it was, and is, in the best interests of the American people to have a government with qualified employees who are not hired and fired for political reasons. That was true when the Pendleton Act was passed in 1883 and it is still true today. But — like many things in Washington, something good can be bureaucratized into something bad. That is what I believe has happened with civil service job protection. It has become so difficult to deal with problem employees that many managers give up and many (71 percent) in the workforce do not see their agencies dealing with problem employees.
Like many federal workers, I have worked in agencies that had too many people who were ROAD — retired on active duty. In some cases the employees were reassigned multiple times in hopes that a miracle would occur and they would start performing. Their coworkers picked up the slack and did the work they should have been doing. No one was happy, except maybe the person who did not have to work but still collected a paycheck. Getting those folks out of government would have been a service to the taxpayers and to their coworkers.
While the idea that federal employees cannot be fired is false, so is the idea that the process is working fine. It is not. I believe it is time to rethink the entire disciplinary/adverse action process government wide. The goal should be a government where good work is recognized, great work is rewarded, and poor performers and people with conduct problems either get better or get gone. Here are the core principles for a process that I believe would work.
The issue of firing federal workers is not simple, nor does solving the problems mean we will suddenly have more effective government. It would most likely have a somewhat positive impact on morale, due to getting non-performers and disruptive people out of the workplace. On the other hand, it could have a negative impact when employees see their friends being fired. As I have said before and must say again, dealing with the problems does not address the 90+ percent of employees who do their jobs and do them as expected or better. We cannot lose sight of that. If we truly want more effective government, we need to spend more time on the people who do the work.
It is also likely that simplified due process, once the HR/Counsel/EEO/IG offices and managers adapt to it, could lead to a surge in removals. If there truly is a backlog of performance/conduct problem employees to be dealt with, it would be a surprise if that did not happen. Once that backlog is taken care of, it would also be logical to expect a drop-off in the number of actions being taken, with the number of removals then leveling off at a higher rate than it is today.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.