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.

New Law Makes it Easier to Fire Bad VA Employees

In what could be a sign of things to come, President Donald Trump, on June 23, 2017, signed a bill into law making it easier to fire bad employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and better protect VA employees who report misconduct.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act (S. 1094) gives the Secretary of Veterans Affairs more authority to fire misbehaving or underperforming employees, shorten the appeals process for that firing, and prohibits employees from being paid while they pursue the appeals process. The law also provides new protections against retaliation for workers who file complaints with the VA general counsel's office and shortens the process for hiring new employees to fill current and future workforce shortages at the VA.

"Our veterans have fulfilled our duty to this nation and now we must fulfill our duty to them," President Trump said.

“Many veterans died waiting for a simple doctor's appointment," the president added, recalling the VA service wait-time scandal that emerged in 2014. “What happened was a national disgrace, and yet some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls. Our dated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable. Today we are changing those laws.”

In April 2017, President Trump issued an executive order creating the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA, intended to weed out bad employees and outdated policies that had allowed them to avoid being fired. The new law is intended to empower that office. 

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Longley, Robert. "The Complicated Process of Firing a Government Employee." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). The Complicated Process of Firing a Government Employee. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Complicated Process of Firing a Government Employee." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).