MSPB’s nepotism advice: Honesty is the best policy

An Agriculture Department meat inspector who reviewed the company that employed his son. A Human Resources adviser who helped a supervisor tailor a hiring action to favor a specific applicant. A Postal Service manager who evaluated his wife for a promotion.

Those are just three of a slew of cases presented by the Merit Systems Protection Board as examples of nepotism, a practice that’s not only prohibited in the federal government, board Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann said, but one that “damages the ability of the civil service to operate effectively, efficiently, and based upon merit. It also is unethical, illegal, and in some cases, criminal.”

Grundmann’s warning is part of MSPB’s recent “Preventing Nepotism in the Federal Civil Service” report, which aims to educate and advise agencies, employers, potential employees — even the future President — on nepotism.

“Nepotism is a serious offense that can damage the effectiveness of an agency’s operations and cause severe harm to the public’s trust that the government is free from corruption,” Grundmann said.

The best policy

MSPB’s report draws on responses to questions submitted by agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management, Office of Government Ethics and the Office of Special Counsel.

The report also includes figures from a 2011 Fair and Open Competition Survey taken by about 10,000 human resources employees, and a 2010 Merit Principles Survey that gathered information from 42,000 federal employees.

Among some of the feedback MSPB collected from agencies was that nepotism was more likely to take place filling entry-level positions. But some reasons for higher level nepotism could be lack of knowledge or misunderstanding by political appointees or subordinates who don’t understand what is being asked of them.

“Officials should be extremely careful about expressing any interest in vacancies on behalf of another person. It might be best for the official to make no contact at all with anyone involved in the hiring action,” MSPB said. “The official should not assume that someone else will understand the official’s intentions. Even an official with good intentions can be disciplined for poor judgment in the exercise of those intentions.”

MSPB also advised that a good place to start with identifying a nepotism problem is by starting with employee perceptions. the Merit Principles Survey found that in 2010. of agencies with at least 400 respondents, perceptions of nepotism ranged from 3.4 percent to 15.9 percent.

nepo
2010 Merit Principles Survey

“Surveys can help agencies learn what is happening in different organizations, but to obtain information related to nepotism, the survey must offer a related question,” MSPB stated. “Many [office of inspector general] investigations rely upon an employee reporting wrongdoing, but the employee must choose to contact an OIG or be prompted by questions from an investigator. As with other types of wrongdoing, if the agency seeks this information and creates a culture where employees believe that reporting nepotism will result in change, the agency will have a better chance to get the information that it needs.”

Agencies can create that culture by:

  • Partnering HR staff with employees to advise them about rules and how to raise concerns if personnel actions seem suspicious.
  • Requiring additional certifications when necessary that personnel actions have not been improperly influenced.
  • Educating executives, managers, supervisors and employees about the rules of ethical conduct.
  • Ensuring that competitions for positions are as fair and open as practical.
  • Holding employees accountable for their own conduct and for supervising the conduct of their subordinates.

Alan Lescht, a Washington-based employment attorney, said that agencies “operate only as well as the people who are managing them.”

“Government agencies operate through people,” Lescht said. “To the lay person out there, people think of government agencies as monolithic agencies. Think of your own job: you’ve got managers there who manage the office, the business, and the business runs through them. So if someone discloses that their spouse or son wants to apply for a job and they submit their request to the ethics office, they do exactly what [MSPB] said. Disclose this, submit, recuse, all that other stuff. What if mangers just don’t read it?”

In turn, both employees and applicants can help by consulting and disclosing any potential conflict of interest, and MSPB advised that transparency is key.

“Honesty is truly the best policy,” the board stated.

Clearer guidance from OPM

As the unofficial human resources office for the federal government, OPM holds a lion’s share of the responsibility for hiring, including education and prevention of nepotism.

In its report, MSPB recommended OPM provide more clear guidance on the use of “optional” Form 306, the Declaration for Federal Employment.

Within the form is the question “Do any of your relatives work for the agency or government organization to which you are submitting this form?”

A “yes” answer doesn’t automatically mean disqualification, but an application must explain the relationship.

OPM told MSPB that the OF-306 is used when someone is applying to the federal government. Agencies said they used the form only for new appointments when the applicant was not employed by an agency. However, “when the individual already was employed with the agency, agencies were less likely to use the OF-306 for a new appointment.”

Agencies differed on their answers for when they used OF-306 when handling applicants from the Pathways Recent Graduates Program.

“We recommend that OPM provide clearer guidance to agencies regarding when the OF-306 is optional and when it is required,” MSPB stated. “If OPM decides that its use is optional for new appointments involving current employees, agencies should assess the conditions under which new appointments within the same agency may still warrant the use of the OF-306.”

A ‘high-risk period’

MSPB’s report also offered advice for the incoming administration.

With such a high turnover of people, the report stated, the transition can be an equally “high-risk period,” when it comes to awareness of prohibited personnel practices (PPPs).

“When there is a new President there will be a large number of new appointments to positions that are political in nature and thus filled by many individuals who do not have prior experience within the civil service,” the report stated. “When these officials arrive in their new positions, it will be important for them to conduct themselves in accordance with the law.”

According to the 2012 Plum Book, about 4,000 presidentially-appointed jobs exist in the federal government.

Don’t assume these appointees already know the nepotism rules, MSPB stated, so the new administration should include PPP education in its transition plans.

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