Agencies barely use probationary period to weed out bad supervisors, MSPB says

Agencies rarely use the flexible probationary period to weed out bad supervisors, according to a new, short study from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Six in every 1,000 new supervisors fail to successfully complete their probationary periods, according to MSPB’s analysis of the Office of Personnel Management’s Central Personnel Data File.

Yet MSPB said it’s unlikely that so many prospective managers would pass their supervisory probationary period with flying colors.

“Given the weaknesses MSPB has previously identified in agency leadership hiring and development practices, it seems unlikely that so few federal supervisors would fail,” the agency said.

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New supervisors and managers must serve a probationary period before officially stepping into their new leadership roles. But unlike the current, one-year probationary period that new federal employees must serve before becoming permanent employees, it’s up to each agency to determine how long to keep new supervisors and managers on probation.

“When used correctly, probation is an effective predictor of future job success and can help ensure that the federal government has high quality leaders,” MSPB wrote.

Yet few agencies, according to MSPB’s 2016 survey of the members of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, have used the flexibility to set varying probationary periods for new supervisors or managers. A clear majority, or 18 out of 22 CHCO respondents, said they set their probationary periods at the standard one year.

MSPB’s study comes shortly after the House easily passed legislation that would extend the current probationary period for most federal employees from one year to two. The Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service (EQUALS) Act earned high praise from the Government Managers Coalition, which argued a longer probationary period would give employees more time to complete specialized training and supervisors the time to properly evaluate their performance.

Because of this flexibility that agencies rarely use, the new legislation would do little “to achieve desired results,” MSPB said.

Instead, MSPB cited several reasons why agency managers are taking little action to remove supervisors and managers who perform poorly during their probationary periods.

First, supervisors are simply uncomfortable with taking action.

“The probationer could have technical skills the organization seeks to preserve, separation could cause morale problems in the organization or the agency might not have an available position in which to place the unsuccessful probationer,” MSPB wrote.

Placing prospective supervisors who fail their probationary periods is a particularly tough challenge for agencies to crack, MSPB said. According to current law, agencies must remove failed supervisory candidates from their positions, but not necessarily the organization.

Some love for OPM

Interestingly, MSPB also spoke highly of a centralized personnel function like OPM.

MSPB Director of Policy and Evaluation James Read recalled instances in the recent past when individual agencies had attempted to form their own personnel systems. Though some law and policy makers have expressed an interest in eliminating or scaling back government’s centralized personnel function, he said, OPM still plays an important role.

“The value of the second role of a central personnel authority — offering economics of scale and expertise for the administration of personnel management functions — should not be overlooked,”  Read wrote in the agency’s winter newsletter. “The usefulness of this second role may seem so obvious that it does not get a second thought. Does anyone believe, for example, that each agency should establish and administer a retirement system for its employees, or that each agency should go into the marketplace and broker a health insurance program for its employees? Yet, in at least one important area, hiring, agencies are left to fend for themselves.”

MSPB praised OPM for the work and expertise it’s developed to inform other agencies about the tools and assessments they can use to better hire qualified talent. Read cited USA Hire, OPM’s assessment tool for job applicants, as a good example of the agency’s expertise. But he suggested OPM tools like USA Hire would be most useful with congressional appropriations, so smaller agencies with fewer resources could use them.

Congress created both OPM and MSPB from  the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

OPM hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed, permanent director in more than two years.

Meanwhile, MSPB has lacked a quorum for a little more than a year. The lone board member, Mark Robbins, has been voting on his own on the petitions for review that come to his office, but the agency can’t release those decisions until at least one other board member weighs in.