By Steve Kelman

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Paid administrative leave: Another broken HR practice

vacant desk

In the June 4 Washington Post, federal workforce reporter Lisa Rein discussed a new memo issued by Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta on federal employees who are put on paid administrative leave, often for months. This issue has gotten attention after a recent Government Accountability Office report on the subject and some earlier Post reporting. (The GAO report noted that over a three-year period 57,000 federal employees had been on paid administrative leave for a month or more.)

This practice in government also has been noted in the media recently in a different context, of police officers in various cities being put on paid leave during investigations of possible misconduct against citizens.

When people outside of government learn that at some agencies employees accused of misconduct, or facing a personnel action for poor performance, are put on paid leave, their reaction is to let out a sigh something like "there they go again." Everyday Americans see this as yet another example of lax, craven practice where agencies take the easy way out at the expense of taxpayers (who foot the bill for the paid leave). As somebody who regards himself as a friend of federal employees and one unusually disinclined to demonize the government, I will confess my reaction is not that different from the public's.

Any HR system (like many organizational systems in general) faces a balance between respecting employee rights and the effectiveness of the organization in meeting its mission. Even from an organizational performance perspective,, fair treatment of employees may itself improve performance by giving employees a better attitude to their job; however, coddling poor performers in the name of due process may likewise demoralize those who are conscientious. The federal HR system in general does not strike a good balance, weighing due process protections too highly against the public's demand for a government that performs well. Paid leave while misconduct or poor performance is being investigated is an example of this poor balance that I suspect the public would rate pretty high on an egregiousness scale.

Unfortunately, the Archuleta memo, though it wants to reduce the use of administrative paid leave, presents a cure that may be almost as bad as the disease. If I read it correctly, she seems to be presenting the alternative to paid leave as keeping the employee on the job (with pay) during any investigation, perhaps with a different assignment.

While paying an employee to stay home and do nothing may offend a popular sense of justice, any form of keeping the employee on salary during a situation considered serious enough to warrant a formal investigation would seem only slightly better. My suggestion would be to suspend employees under investigation without pay, with the appropriate due process protection that, if no wrongdoing is uncovered, the employee should receive back pay for the suspension period.

Improving the broken federal HR system is tough work, requiring some big changes in the practices of many federal managers (e.g. non-involvement in hiring decisions that should be a central part of any good manager's job). It also requires legal changes (involving endless due process to get rid of poor performers) that are a political minefield. But let's look for opportunities -- such as the dysfunctional practices involving paid administrative leave -- to chip away at the mountain where we can.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 04, 2015 at 1:58 PM


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