'At will' employment for SES: What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, according to a recent survey of Senior Executive Service leaders, who are worried about congressional efforts to make them at-will employees.

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Congress has already made it easier to fire Senior Executive Service officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and legislation has been floated that would make SES leaders at-will employees governmentwide. A new survey from the Senior Executives Association finds, unsurprisingly, that most SES'ers are not fans of the idea.

The SEA polled 476 current and retired senior executive service member on the potential impact of "At Will Employment" legislation. Respondents warned of several adverse consequences:

In your opinion, which of the following are likely to occur from AWE implementation?

- Active SES   - Retired SES

  1. Career executives will be more likely to carry out orders which they believe may present legal or ethical concerns.
  2. Career executives will be less likely to disagree with their immediate supervisors or political leadership.
  3. SES supervisors or political leadership will be more likely to fire career executives they disagree with, don't trust, or simply don't like.
  4. Career executives will be less likely to innovate since such actions outside existing performance plans are (1) riskier and therefore more likely to fail, (2) likely to make it harder for executives to meet the performance goals in their plans.
  5. Career executives will be more likely to place their attention and efforts on directives which do not relate to their immediate responsibilities or performance standards but which they believe will please their immediate supervisor or political leadership.


The respondents were also skeptical of supposed benefits of AWE legislation.  At least 79 percent of both active and retired personnel said it would not improve any of the following workforce issues:

  • agencies’ retention of senior executives and professional employees,
  • recruitment of talented employees already within government to the SES and
  • recruitment of individuals working outside the federal government.

Respondents worried that AWE legislation had the potential to politicize the SES and place employees in situations where an abuse of authority might thrive in lieu of ethical or legal protections. Seventy-nine percent of active and 73 percent of retired respondents said AWE would increase the likelihood that senior executives would retire as soon as they are eligible to do so.


Survey Source: "Promoting Accountability or Threatening Federal Government Effectiveness and Senior Management Capability?"

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