By William Wiley, October 30, 2018

One of the Executive Orders (EOs) issued by the White House on May 25 effectively did away with an agency’s ability to resolve an employee controversy by entering into a “clean record” settlement agreement. As background, here’s how life works in the federal workplace when it comes to taking adverse actions against employees:

1 – The agency proposes, then decides to implement an adverse action … say, a removal.

2 – The employee exercises his right to challenge that removal by filing an appeal, complaint, or grievance.

3 – Neither the employee nor the agency really wants to go through the appeal/complaint/grievance process. These procedures are expensive, time-consuming, lengthy, confrontational, and of uncertain outcome for both sides. Therefore, both management and the (former) employee have a strong incentive to settle the matter without litigation.

4 – Employees often just want to get on with their lives. They really don’t want to return to the agency that fired them. Agencies don’t really care what happens to the employee after he is gone, they just want him gone, never to return.

5 – Employees perceive that they will have a challenge getting on with their lives if it is documented in their official personnel file (OPF or e-OPF) that they have been fired. Therefore, as part of a settlement negotiation, the employee will ask that the SF-50 personnel form documenting his removal be removed from his e-OPF. Hence, the term “clean record.”

6 – Agencies don’t care if the employee’s record is clean. They know him and he is never getting rehired at that agency regardless of what’s in his e-OPF. If another agency is stupid enough to hire the employee without calling the previous-employing agency to check up on the employee’s work history, things not necessarily in the e-OPF, then that’s their problem. Agreeing to provide a clean record is a powerful bargaining chip that agencies have in settlement discussions because, in the agency’s opinion, they cost the agency nothing.

According to the recent EO, this widespread practice is bad for government. The belief appears to be that somehow by keeping this adverse information out of the e-OPF, future agency employers are disadvantaged. The future employer might hire the formerly fired individual without knowing about his previous bad work history. So, the EO requires that this practice be abandoned. Section 5 of Executive Order 13839 of May 25, 2018, Promoting Accountability and Streamlining Removal Procedures Consistent with Merit System Principles, provides as follows:

Sec. 5. Ensuring Integrity of Personnel Files. Agencies shall not agree to erase, remove, alter, or withhold from another agency any information about a civilian employee’s performance or conduct in that employee’s official personnel records, including an employee’s Official Personnel Folder and Employee Performance File, as part of, or as a condition to, resolving a formal or informal complaint by the employee or settling an administrative challenge to an adverse personnel action.

Well, even if the principle behind the EO is a good one, the practical reality undermines the requirements of no-clean-record for one simple reason: HIRING OFFICIALS DO NOT ROUTINELY REVIEW AN APPLICANT’S e-OPF DURING THE HIRING PROCESS. Whether the SF-50 documenting a prior removal is in the record or not, it doesn’t matter. The application form itself requires the applicant to disclose any separations from previous employment under adverse conditions. That requires the applicant to disclose separations resulting from settlements with other government agencies as well as separations from private sector employers. Lying on an application for government employment is a criminal violation and can result in jail time for the applicant. The cleanliness, or lack thereof, of the e-OPF is an exceedingly minor matter.

The result of the EO is that a valuable bargaining tool available for agencies has been taken away, with very little resulting value for the government by the iron-clad ban on clean record settlements. Whoever conceived of Section 5 might be onto something worth pursuing, but the approach taken by the EO reveals a lack of practical understanding of the federal hiring process.

On October 19, OPM stepped into the fray by issuing an “Interpretative Guidance” memo to help agencies deal with the restrictions of Section 5. Unfortunately, for many of us front-line practitioners, while the memo giveth, it also taketh away. We discuss that issue in a separate FELTG article.

Isn’t this crazy? Here at FELTG, we’re just a tiny little training company, full of contractors just trying to make a living. Yet we have to help you wonderful civil service law practitioners understand what the White House is really trying to do. Geez, I hope we get this right. [email protected]

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