By William Wiley, October 18, 2022
Oh, did you like that one?
Well, how about this: “Federal employment is basically welfare with an attendance requirement, but not a very strict one.”
Are you offended yet?
Well you just might be if you read any more of the hundred or so comments relative to a recent media piece on the cable network MSN, entitled Afraid of Being Fired? Consider Working a ‘Forever Job’ with the Federal Government.
If you read the article in its entirety, you probably won’t find anything new. It’s a word salad of labor/employment terms, put together to gain the attention of readers who are predisposed to have a negative view of Federal civil servants. Take several labor/employment terms, throw them together in a scary way and voila! you have an article that makes people angry. And anger gets clicks. One of the saddest realities of life is that a lot of people would rather read something that gets them angry or reinforces a predisposition that they already hold rather than read something that might provide new information to consider.
This human tendency is nothing unusual. I remember a psychological study from the 1970s that looked at the viewing habits of people the weeks after they had bought a new car. Most people tended to pay closer attention to and view ads for longer if they were advertisements for the make of automobile that they had just bought even though they had already committed to that brand. They weren’t looking for new information for a future purchase. Rather, they were looking for confirmation that the make of car they had just bought was as cool as they thought it was. Psychologists call this tendency “confirmation bias,” a term you might have picked up on in your undergrad “Introduction to Psychology” course (if you hadn’t still been recovering from your party-full weekend).
Although reinforcement of a previously held belief isn’t a bad thing in itself, there is a dark side if you think about it. When someone spends time reading things that they agree with, they may forgo spending additional time to read something else with which they do not agree that could be helpful. If you bought a new Ford and then read car ads only about Fords, you might neglect to read that article that provides evidence that a Toyota is a better long-term investment. That would be helpful information for you the next time you buy a car.
With this background in human behavior, how should those of us who believe that the Federal civil service is an honorable, hard-working, and honest calling respond when someone confronts us with this kind of misinformed nonsense? Well, being experts at firing bad people from government, and with a touch of background in psychology, we here at FELTG humbly suggest the following:
- As a society we want it to be harder to fire a civil servant than a typical employee in the private sector. That’s to protect us citizens from a government composed of partisans interested mainly in their personal philosophy. Try out this thought experiment: If you are a conservative, do you really want a government filled with a bunch of socialist liberals giving away our tax dollars to dangerous undocumented immigrants? Or, if you are a liberal, do you really want a government filled with a bunch of fascists giving away our tax dollars to fat-cat billionaire polluters? If we did not have extra protections for career civil servants, every time we changed from a liberal to conservative White House, we could expect a significant change from one biased civil service to another biased civil service. The extra protections provided by law to Federal employees is intended to keep that sort of patronage from happening.
- Career civil servants have already proven themselves to be above average employees, theoretically among the best and the brightest. First, they have won a merit-based competition for their jobs. Then, they have survived probationary periods (during which they can be summarily dismissed) that are much longer than probationary periods in the private sector: one, two, and sometimes of even three years in length. After surviving these hurdles, a claim that they can no longer do a good job should receive scrutiny. They have proven themselves to warrant continued employment. There should be proof when it is claimed that they do not.
- These extra-protections that career civil servants have by law are not really that onerous for an employing agency IF the agency knows what it is doing. Here is all that it takes to fire a bad government employee:
- The supervisor has to tell the employee what to do. That can be done by giving the employee performance standards or work instructions. There’s no particular form this notification must take. It can be as simple as an email or even oral direction. It would be hard to argue that an agency should be able to fire an employee for not doing something that the supervisor never said had to be done.
- If the employee makes a mistake and does not do what the supervisor says needs to be done, the supervisor has to tell the employee about the mistake and usually has to give the employee the chance to behave correctly. This can be done through the initiation of either progressive discipline or a performance improvement plan. Unless the employee’s mistakes are causing significant harm, sometimes this might take two warnings. But hardly ever any more than that. Yes, this is more than is required in the private sector where an employee can be fired for a first offense of coming to work five minutes late. But given the goal of our society of having a neutral, non-political civil service, this extra step should not be a big deal.
- If the employee continues to make mistakes, the supervisor has to give the employee written notice of what has been done wrong and allow the employee to offer a defense or explanation. Once the supervisor issues this notice, the employee must be paid for another 30 days, although there is no mandate that the supervisor keep the employee in the workplace to make even more mistakes. When the law was passed to require this 30-day paid notice period, one of the sponsors of the bill said that 30 days of salary would act as a type of severance pay, allowing the individual some time to find another job. You and I may not think such largess is warranted, but we still would need to concede that these last couple of pay checks are not a significant bar to firing the employee.
That’s it. The employee is now off the government payroll and once more a private citizen. There are a few exceptions and twists to the above, e.g., sometimes the supervisor needs to give the employee only 7 days of a paid notice period instead of 30, or maybe the harm caused by the employee is so significant that there is no need to give the employee a second chance. However, in most situations, not much different from the above is required from one case to the next.
Once the employee is fired, the agency may have to produce evidence that the removal was justified. And for Federal civil servants, “justified” means that it is either probable or possible that the individual really was a bad employee. These are significantly lower burdens of proof than the oft-cited “beyond a reasonable doubt” proof burden required in criminal cases. If a supervisor cannot come up with either preponderant or substantial evidence of bad employee performance or conduct, then the protections against unfair treatment for Federal employees do their job and the employee is entitled to be restored to the government payroll.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In recognition of the 44th anniversary this October of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the law that defined these civil service protections above and made it relatively easy to fire a bad government employee, with apologies to Ms. Lazarus, I would say, “Give me your incompetent, your lazy, your no-good civil servants who think they are on welfare in a forever job.” Using the procedures in the CSRA, a FELTG-trained practitioner can take it from there.
So, if I’m so darned smart, why don’t I do that for you? Hey, I’m retired! Ain’t nobody got time for that. Wiley@FELTG.com