Feds mishandle probationary hiring

The belief that supervisors can't fire a federal employee is not true. The truth is supervisors can fire employees for poor performance, but they rarely do, according to a new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which protects federal civil service employees by hearing and deciding cases involving personnel actions.

MSPB's report on misuse of the probationary hiring period in federal employment documents a supervisory culture in need of reform. For example, even when some supervisors realize right away that they made a bad hire, many of them won't terminate a probationary employee, even one whom they admit they never should have hired in the first place.

The MSPB report is filled with evidence that supervisors are not using the mandatory probationary period to ensure that only the best candidates become federal employees, with all the job protections that entails. It paints a picture of supervisors who are reluctant to confront problem employees.

By examining the Office of Personnel Management's Central Personnel Data File, the report's authors found that agencies terminate only 1.6 percent of new hires during the one-year probationary period that precedes permanent federal employment. When new federal hires enter their second year of federal employment, termination rates drop below 0.5 percent and stay at that level for the next 20 years.

Those numbers suggest that if poorly performing employees are not fired during their probationary period, they will remain federal employees for years and impede the high-performing workforce that lawmakers and Bush administration officials say they want.

However, George Stalcup, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, said employment experts do not agree on a reliable figure for the magnitude of the poor-performer problem, even though supervisors and employees can cite anecdotal evidence.

"There's not a support group out there for poor performers," said John Palguta, vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service. "Their co-workers are among the most critical because nobody wants to work in an organization with somebody who is not carrying their weight."

At the conclusion of its report, MSPB recommends that Title 5 of the U.S. Code be amended to let agencies establish probationary periods longer than a year if necessary for evaluating employees in certain occupations.

In addition, MSPB recommends that OPM require federal agencies to certify that probationary employees have met conduct and performance standards. If nothing is done to remove poorly performing workers during probation, they automatically become full-fledged federal employees at the end of their probationary period under current OPM rules.

MSPB also recommends that agencies train and require supervisors to use the probationary period as it was intended: to evaluate employees' conduct and performance. MSPB recommends that supervisors' training emphasize the importance of telling new hires before they accept a federal job offer that they will be probationary employees for a year.

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