By William Wiley, November 14, 2018

I’ve been making improvements in the civil service since before some readers could even spell MSPB or FLRA. In the accompanying photo, you will see me helping unpack the very first computers delivered to FLRA when I was the chief of staff for the General Counsel. Note the high degree of excitement. They were color monitors! I took a lot of heat from the purchasing staff when I insisted on color, reasoning that it was the future of computing. I can still hear them complain, “What’s wrong with black and green, Mr. Wiley?!?” Yes, sometimes you have to be a little pushy to make good change happen.

I hope that some of you readers feel a bit pushy, because the federal workplace still needs innovation. A lot of what you do in your civil service law workplace, and what we teach here at FELTG, is controlled by employee accountability law or regulation: preponderant evidence to fire for misconduct, performance ratings at least annually, 30 days of pay between a proposal to fire and the firing itself. These are decisions made by Congress and OPM. We are bound to them whether we agree with them or not. They are our civil service law.

However, there are other areas of Human Resources that are related to accountability that are not defined by law or regulation that are just as important. And as far as we can tell, these are decisions being left to individual supervisors to make in most every agency, and which would no doubt benefit from a reasoned choice between options and the developmental of formal policy. Here are three:

1 – Performance Rating Distribution – Every supervisor officially rates individual performance within a group of subordinate employees once a year. Which of these possible alternatives is the better policy option?

  • Most all employees get the top rating because by merit selection, we have hired into the government the best and the brightest.
  • Very few employees should receive the top rating as high performance is exceptionally rare in government. In fact, top ratings should be mathematically limited from year to year and dispersed among those who haven’t received one recently

2 – Discipline for Repeated Misconduct – Every supervisor has the responsibility to propose or implement discipline for employee misconduct. Which of these possible alternatives is the better policy option?

  • Discipline should be corrective. If a repeat offender has been reprimanded, then suspended, removal is warranted for the next incident because he has demonstrated that he does not respond to discipline by correcting his behavior. The civil service does not need to retain individuals who do not respond to discipline.
  • Discipline should be punitive. Repeat offenders need not be fired necessarily as each incident of discipline (aka punishment) extracts an eye for an eye. Just because an individual repeatedly violates workplace rules and does not respond by correcting her behavior is not a reason to fire her.

3 – Substantial versus Preponderant Evidence – Management has to defend every removal action by some quantum of proof when the removal is challenged on appeal. Which of these possible alternatives is the better policy option?

  • Substantial evidence: It is possible that the employee deserves the discipline. This is already the law for performance-based removals throughout government and for both performance and misconduct removals at the VA. The law allows an agency to use this level of evidence for reprimands and suspensions. It is exceedingly easy to prove a removal is warranted at this level (the Supreme Court says this burden is a “grain more than a scintilla”)
  • Preponderant evidence: It is probable that the employee deserves the discipline; more likely than not. By law, this is the mandatory burden of proof that agencies (other than VA) must attain to fire an employee for misconduct. Requiring this level of evidence will prevent more removals than would the substantial level of evidence.

Opinions as to which of these options is best are strong on both sides.

  • Congress routinely rails, and the media frequently howls, when statistics show that most federal employees get the top performance rating. At the same time, for 40 years the law has precluded an agency from comparing employees to each other when rating an individual’s performance.
  • We often recite the mantra that “discipline is corrective, not punitive,” but I could not find that as policy anywhere on the web other than on a union’s website. GAO issued a report this summer that was critical of agencies that suspend employees more than once, suggesting a a removal should follow a suspension. Yet, the Merit Systems Protection Board has mitigated removals to second suspensions and imposed 90-120 suspension in lieu of removals without any evidence that long suspensions like that are somehow more corrective than shorter ones.
  • Although preponderant evidence is legally mandated only for removals, demotions, and long suspensions, agencies often incorporate that standard into lesser suspensions and reprimands. Arbitrators routinely apply the “just cause” standard to all discipline, a level commensurate with preponderant evidence according to the literature. At the same time, government agencies are routinely criticized for letting employees “get away” with public misconduct.

Here at FELTG, we certainly have our opinions as to which of these options is the better. However, it is not our role to make these policy decisions. So, whose is it? Is it OPM’s? If so, why haven’t they done it? Is it the head of your agency? If so, do you see these issues addressed in agency directives? How will you coordinate with everyone else in your agency to make sure that everyone is working from the same principles and beliefs?

When you want a team to work together – football, synchronized swimming, or a military unit – you put the individuals in uniforms and make centralized decisions. Somebody in government should be making these decisions centrally and applying the selected options uniformly. Otherwise, you’re just a bunch of smart people working in your own little world, choosing from among options that have good arguments on both sides.

By the way, if you REALLY want FELTG to make these decisions for you, we are happy to oblige. Just send us your requests, along with appropriately dedicated funding, and we’ll delighted to write your policies for you. We’ve even set up a sub-component just to provide this service: the Department of Accountability and Discipline. If you can’t decide for yourself how the government should be run, just leave it up to our DAD.

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