More federal employees in recent years say they’ve witnessed or experienced some kind of harassment, nepotism, discrimination or retaliation for whistleblowing than before, according to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Roughly 46% of employees in 2016 said they witnessed or were personally impacted by a prohibited personnel practice, compared to 34% of the federal workforce in 2010. A prohibited personnel practice is a broad term used to describe 14 violations such as employing a family member, coercing an employee’s political activity or discriminating against someone on basis of race, color, religion and sex.
The results are part of a survey MSPB conducted of more than 14,000 federal employees back in 2016. Though the agency conducted the survey nearly three years ago, these particular results are part of a new report the MSPB published earlier this week.
MSPB’s own survey results come as the Office of Special Counsel has received a growing number of prohibited personnel practice complaints in recent years.
MSPB said it couldn’t directly compare its own survey results to OSC’s trends but acknowledged the two data points could serve as additional evidence of increasing employee perceptions of PPP complaints.
“It is possible more PPPs are occurring,” the MSPB wrote. “However, it is also possible that employees have become better at recognizing and reporting PPPs as a result of increased efforts to educate them about the PPPs. Several agencies informed us that they believed their workforces had become much better educated about the PPPs.”
Agencies, including the Office of Special Counsel, often point to greater workforce awareness as a reason for an uptick in whistleblower complaints, for example.
Meanwhile, perceptions of prohibited personnel practices vary widely depending on the violation.
Employee perceptions of sex-based discrimination at agencies increased the most — by 8.2% in 2016 — out of any other prohibited practice, the MSPB said. Discrimination based on race, age and disability also went up by 5% or more.
More employees, about 6.2%, said they observed or experienced their whistleblower retaliation from their supervisor, manager or a senior leader in their agencies, according to MSPB’s most recent survey.
Perceptions of other kinds of retaliation, which the MSPB described as a personnel action taken against an employee for filing an appeal or grievance, also went up 7.8% since 2010.
Because the MSPB lacks a quorum, the agency can’t issue new recommendations to Congress or the President. But recommendations the MSPB made the last time it issued a similar report back in 2011 still stand, the agency said.
At the time, the MSPB recommended agencies take additional steps to educate their employees, especially managers, supervisors, human capital leaders and others, about prohibited personnel practices.
Agencies should also investigate any allegations of a PPP and consider taking disciplinary action if the organization determines that an employee did, in fact, do something wrong.
“Where there are perceptions of PPPs, but the agency concludes that PPPs have not occurred, agencies should seek to do a better job of explaining to employees the reasons behind management decisions so that employees can better understand the merit-based reasons for a particular outcome and avoid misperceptions in the future,” the MSPB said in 2011.
This recommendation in particular would likely go a long way toward agencies’ efforts to keep the federal workforce engaged, as the MSPB found a correlation between employees’ perceptions and experiences with things like discrimination or nepotism and their overall engagement at work.
According to the MSPB, employees who had experienced a prohibited personnel action were less likely to be engaged or somewhat engaged with their work.
In addition, the MSPB sees a correlation between employee perceptions of prohibited personnel practices and positive views of their workplace culture.
About 68% of federal employees who had experienced one or more PPPs rated their work culture as “least positive,” while 49% of employees who had witnessed a prohibited personnel practice reported “least positive” culture. Just 17% of employees who weren’t impacted by PPPs rated their work culture as “least positive.”
In addition, these perceptions and experiences influenced employees’ views on how their work-unit performed — and whether their agency rewarded creativity and innovation.
“Research has shown that a workplace’s culture can cause an individual to ‘bring themselves into or remove themselves from particular task behaviors,” the MSPB wrote. “If you want an employee to bring all of himself or herself to the performance of a duty (e.g., creativity, energy and commitment to excellence), then the workplace culture matters.”