Data Snapshot

How to fire a fed

There's a hint of irony in the Government Accountability Office's recent workforce report, which finds that agency leaders are too often doing a subpar job of dealing with under-performing employees.  

While agencies have several avenues to address employees' performance -- including routine performance management activities, probationary periods and formal procedures -- GAO found that these tactics are generally underutilized due to a lack of leadership training and concerns over internal support and legal proceedings. 

And then there's the sheer amount of time required:

Chapter 43 Process

GAO found that a formal dismissal process can take anywhere from 170 to 370 days. (*The Chapter 75 process, which does not require a formal improvement period, can speed things along, but the burden of proof for sustaining a dismissal is much higher.) And a dismissal can then be appealed. In 2013, the Merit Systems Protection Board took an average of 243 days to adjudicate such complaints.

As a result, the vast majority of dismissals take place during a new hire's one-year probationary period. The following two charts display the employee dismissal rates and appeals of employees to the Merit Systems Protection Board for 2013.

Performance Dismissals By Legal Authority and Employment Status (2013)
Dismissal Percent
Probation 70%
Chapter 751 21%
Chapter 432 8%
Other 1%

1U.S.C. § 4303: "Unacceptable performance may be due to a teachable knowledge gap and training, guidance, and/or clearer expectations may help the employee improve. [...]" (The average performance improvement period granted to an employee takes 50 to 110 days.)

2U.S.C. § 7513: "Performance is unlikely to be improved with additional training, guidance, or clearer expectations, and a good faith effort has been made to help the employee. [...]"(No improvement period is necessary, however, the burden of proof must be significantly higher in order to establish a dismissal.)

MSPB Decisions on Dismissal Appeals under Chapter 43 (2013)
Outcome3 Percent
Settled 54%
Dismissed 29%
Decided in agency's favor 14%
Decided in appellant's favor 3%

3According to GAO's findings, MSPB takes an average of 243 days to adjudicate an appeal from start to finish.

The process can work better, GAO concluded, and recommended the following actions:

  • Confirm that supervisors are both well-qualified and capable of addressing poor performance, while determining if promising practices should be implemented government-wide.
  • Ensure supervisors obtain the skills necessary to effectively conduct performance management responsibilities, and assess the quality of leadership training made available within agencies.
  • Educate agencies on the benefits of an automated system to notify supervisors of probationary period constraints, and determine whether an extended probationary period might be warranted in certain occupations.
  • Make informed decisions through the use of OPM's provided tools and guidance--e.g. SHCM survey results, FEVS results, PAAT responses and other existing information.

Source: GAO's "Improved Supervision and Better Use of Probationary Periods Are Needed to Address Substandard Employee Performance"

About the Author

Jonathan Lutton is an FCW editorial fellow. Connect with him at [email protected]


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2020 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Cybersecurity
    cybersecurity (Rawpixel/

    CMMC clears key regulatory hurdle

    The White House approved an interim rule to mandate defense contractors prove they adhere to existing cybersecurity standards from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Stay Connected