The Complicated Process of Firing a Government Employee

When the Process Becomes the Problem

Two Words Federal Employees Rarely Hear. Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

The federal government’s disciplinary personnel process have become so cumbersome that only about 4,000 employees a year -- 0.2 % of the total workforce of 2.1 million -- are fired, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In 2013, the federal agencies dismissed around 3,500 employees for performance or a combination of performance and conduct.

In its report to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the GAO stated, “The time and resource commitment needed to remove a poor performing permanent employee can be substantial.”

In fact, found the GAO, firing a federal employee often takes from six months to over a year.

“According to selected experts and GAO’s literature review, concerns over internal support, lack of performance management training, and legal issues can also reduce a supervisor’s willingness to address poor performance,” wrote the GAO.

Remember, it actually took an act of Congress to give the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs the power to outright fire senior VA executives who failed to meet performance standards.

As the GAO noted, the in 2014 annual survey of all federal employees, only 28% said the agencies they worked for had any formal procedure for dealing with chronically poorly performing workers.

The Probationary Period Problem

After being hired, most federal employees serve a one-year probationary period, during which the lack the same rights to appeal disciplinary actions – like firing – as employees who have completed probation.

It is during that probationary period, advised the GAO when the agencies should try their hardest to identify and carve out the “bad word” employees before they gain the full right to appeal.

According to the GAO, about 70% of the 3,489 federal employees fired in 2013 were fired during their probationary period.

While the exact number is not known, some employees facing disciplinary actions during their probationary period choose to resign rather than have a firing on their record, noted the GAO.

However, reported the GAO, work unit managers “often do not use this time to make performance-related decisions about an employee’s performance because they may not know that the probationary period is ending or they have not had time to observe performance in all critical areas.”

As a result, many new employees fly “under the radar” during their probationary periods.

‘Unacceptable,’ Says Senator

The GAO was asked to investigate the government firing process by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In a statement on the report, Sen. Johnson found it “unacceptable that some agencies let the first year slip by without conducting performance reviews, never aware that the probationary period had expired. The probationary period is one of the best tools the federal government has to weed out poor-performing employees. Agencies must do more to evaluate the employee during that time period and decide whether she or he can do the job.”

Among other corrective actions, the GAO recommended the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) -- the government’s HR department -- extend the mandatory probationary period beyond 1-year and include at least one full employee evaluation cycle.

However, the OPM said extending the probationary period would probably require, you guessed it, “legislative action” on the part of Congress.