Do federal employees get pay increases regardless of their job performance?

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The Merit Systems Protection Board recently confirmed what most federal employees already knew: Everybody gets a step-pay increase whether they deserve it or not. Supervisors say too many people aren’t suited to their jobs or even unwilling to do them. Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked about this with Bob Tobias, a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Bob, this comes up from time to time, it seems like Lake Wobegon, everybody gets their step increase, and everything’s fine. And yet, the least happy about it are the employees who know who deserves the money and who doesn’t.

Bob Tobias: You accurately describe the problem, Tom. It is as old as the civil service. And what’s interesting though, about this survey, is what supervisors themselves defined as the root cause of this problem. And the first is that employees are ill suited for their job. So the solution to that problem is easy to define. And that is to create a hiring process that’s fast, that adheres to the merit principles, that gives veterans a preference, and places qualified applicants into jobs that match their skills. Now, the hard part is designing that kind of a process that’s agreeable to OPM, federal managers, unions, veterans, and members of Congress. And people have been working on this for 30 years and have yet to come up with an appropriate solution, and even if they do, whatever is designed would be hard to implement, because it would require such changed behavior by so many people.

Tom Temin: Well, could it be that when people are hired, they are hired according to those criteria, merit systems, veterans preference, and qualified but the job changes, because you hear over and over again from people that observe these things that the jobs change while you’re in them, in place. And that could mean the job moves away from the person who originally hired.

Bob Tobias: I think that’s a problem as well, Tom, but I think fundamentally, many, many employees are not placed in jobs that are consistent with their qualifications. So designing that kind of a process would be hard and implementing it would be hard. And the second is that employees are unwilling to do their job. Now, I don’t think it’s hard to describe a solution for that problem either. And that is remove people who do not do their job. Now, why this has become difficult, is because when people don’t do their job, it’s described as a performance problem. That is a performance improvement plan needs to be issued. But I suggest that’s the wrong approach. Rather, it should be described as a conduct problem. So there’s no requirement for a performance improvement plan. Rather, the only thing that you need is give someone a direction to do the job. When they don’t do it, you initiate action. But that too, would be hard to implement, because it would require supervisors to be trained, it required supervisors to get support of their superiors, and the support of the human resource community, and the lawyers in agencies who handle these cases. So in both cases, the solution is easy. The design is difficult for those who are ill suited for their job, easy for those who aren’t doing their work, but in both cases, hard to implement. So I think OPM has a very difficult problem in front of it. And the question is, are they up to the task? Are they up to the task of convening the people who have the interests that are necessary to create new approaches, facilitate those sessions, draft something that’s new and get it implemented? And I think the Biden administration, OPM is up to the task. I think they have the talent and the grit to make it happen.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Robert Tobias. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. What changed at OPM so quickly?

Bob Tobias: Well I think what changed is a sense that OPM needs to be recreated in a way that it leads to human resource actions in the federal government. And I think there’s a consensus around that, and a recent report by the National Academy of Public Administration confirmed that. So I think they see themselves in that role and want to perform that role in a way that they haven’t seen that role in the recent past.

Tom Temin: On the other hand, hiring itself is the function of the individual agencies down to the bureau and work group level is where the hiring takes place and not even at the HR function or the human capital function at the department or agency level. So somehow, whatever OPM learns and determines, has to get translated over to a vast number of people that represent the hiring managers across the government.

Bob Tobias: That is correct, you’re exactly correct. But OPM, I think, can, through a better website, a better hiring website, a simpler process for evaluation, a broader scope of people who are included in pools available for consideration, can increase the speed of hiring, and increase the way qualifications are evaluated. So I think OPM can have a role in helping agencies to do their work faster and better.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned earlier the removal of people who won’t do their jobs. And I agree, that’s a behavioral issue, not a performance issue. But then in between, you do have people that might be totally willing in their hearts in it, but they perform at different levels. And so that’s kind of a tougher thing to deal with, in some ways, especially with respect to the annual raises and so on. What about the greater mobility of people that perhaps someone is better suited somewhere else. And I don’t mean to get rid of them by shoving them somewhere and getting rid of them, and they can’t perform there either. But truly managing the workforce so that everybody is best matched talent and job requirements.

Bob Tobias: I couldn’t agree more Tom. And there’s a very old MSPB study that focuses on just that fact. That when performance improvement plans are seriously created, and seriously managed, 80% end up either improving significantly, or being reassigned to work that they can perform. So that’s also a solution that’s available if we’re only focusing on performance. But as I said, what’s interesting to me is what the supervisors themselves described as the root problem of this issue.

Tom Temin: And with respect to the speed of hiring, how could that improve the quality of who comes in and the matching of the jobs and the requirements and all that nirvana?

Bob Tobias: Well, you know, it’s how the job is described and do my qualifications fit that. So I think better description of what’s available, better evaluation of my qualifications, and a commitment to create a match.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so instead of fooling around with this long process, where sometimes the best people don’t stick around, because other organizations hire more quickly. And not to say the private sector is necessarily fast, it takes them weeks and sometimes months to hire someone but for the government, it’s months it seemed to stretch into years.

Bob Tobias: Well, there’s no question that the process is too long, and that people who are committed to public service and particularly federal service, I’m just like anybody else. If I want to work for the federal government, but I need a job and somebody else offers me a job in the interim, I’m likely to take what’s offered as opposed to waiting on what might be offered.

Tom Temin: Robert Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. As always, good insight.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

 

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