Firing a government employee

Devin asked for some elaboration on what it means when I said that federal employees can’t be fired.

Perhaps it’s best to think of federal employees’ job security as analogous to that of teachers. (The article really is worth the read.)

I’ve done a bit of asking around and found one person who works in government who is familiar with a federal employee actually being fired.

A bit of background. Apparently the fired person did nothing. The conservative estimate was that this guy did 10-20 hours of work in a year. (They swear up and down that he did no more than this). He did, however, consistently show up to work. For years, his supervisors basically ignored him. Then, he got a new supervisor who decided that enough was enough. So, the supervisor began the firing process.

First, the supervisor has to do document that the employee does not do or is incapable of performing his job functions. In this case, the supervisor documented requests to the employee and the employee’s response or lack thereof. This part of the process took several months.

Then the employee has to be flunked at a couple performance reviews. Another year down the drain. This flunking kicks off the official process.

Finally, the official process includes the employee enlisting the help of a union representative. It ends with full-on review by some sort of board.

My understanding is that this process took longer than one year. Further, during much of the union review, the process took up a huge amount of the supervisor’s time. So, firing multiple employees would take years and (with multiple employees) it would require 100% of the supervisor’s time during a significant portion of the union review process.

Before concluding, I should point out that the supervisor gets no reward for firing a bad employee. In fact, a supervisor’s budget may be cut, since the supervisor now has one less staff member. Good employees may choose to avoid that particular supervisor as well. There is no upside to firing an employee as far as I can tell. The amount of time and energy it costs a supervisor is downside enough to dissuade almost any sane supervisor from firing anyone.

So, Devin is correct that an employee can be fired, but the system is set up to discourage firing (to say the least). The practical result is that supervisors don’t fire employees.

Also note that the fact that the process is so slow means that it’s basically impossible for the head of an agency to fire anyone. If an appointment at the head of an agency lasts for 4 years, the process would not be concluded by the time the head’s term had expired.

I should probably also add that it may be a bit easier to fire managers than it is to fire employees. Nevertheless, in practice, bad managers are generally just given alternative assignments while they await retirement.


14 Responses to Firing a government employee

  1. Awesome! Thanks again for the explanation!

    Do you know who has the nominal authority to initiate layoffs? Do layoffs have to go through the same process of needing multiple years, commissions, etc, to undertake? Or do agency heads nominally have the authority to declare and implement layoffs for any cause, without approval from Congress, the OPM, or any ‘independent’ commissions?

    Of course, I’ve never heard of federal layoffs happening in practice. I wonder why no conservative administration has never even tried. Just not worth fighting the civil service, when there are other, more popular battles to wage?

    • Foseti says:

      As far as I know layoffs have to be initiated by immediate supervisors. In my experience, heads of agencies don’t deal with staffing issues – besides their immediate employees. I have never head of a head of agency initiating mass layoffs – it just doesn’t happen. The only “mass reductions in staff” that I’ve ever heard of involve reduction by attrition and buyout packages.

      There are several different unions of federal employees, but my understanding is that the processes are the same. Of course if the employee is part of a protected class (a huge percentage of federal employees are) then the EEOC would step in.

  2. Buckethead says:

    My dear old mum, before she retired, was director of a county human services agency – state funded, and administered by the county. Even at this level, the procedures are the same. In her last ten years before she retired, I think she said she managed to fire two people. Each took five years though there was some overlap. There were dozens of other people she’d have liked to fire, but their incompetence or malevolence to the citizenry was low enough that it wouldn’t have been worth the extreme effort needed to push it through.

    Side note – the government employee’s union there was actually the teamsters. Mom had to deal with stereotypical teamster union reps every time there was a grievance.

  3. […] Foseti: This is your government, Why I am not a libertarian, and Firing a government employee […]

  4. […] – “This is Your Government“, “Why I Am Not a Libertarian“, “Firing a Government Employee“, “More on Federal […]

  5. Borepatch says:

    My first job out of State U was at a three letter intelligence agency. I was a slow learner, so it took two years to drive be screaming into industry. But while I was there, I was told by a long timer that you could only be fired for two things: selling secrets to the Russians, or using one of the franked “For Official Use Only” envelopes for personal use.

    • Foseti says:

      I’ve heard that the only way to get fired was to watch porn at work. However, the SEC seems to recently have tested that theory and proved it wanting.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Government Employee.

    My supervisor is so corrupt that he he doesent dare even think of a reason to fire me. Matter of fact I am a 1% outlaw biker in his employee and and he cannot even think of a reason to fire me…. stupid SOB!!!

    Any way…. the system is broke and every swinging dick knows it!..


  7. Mrs. Anonymous says:

    Coworker and I worked on a project. I made a mistake by not following up with people, just accepting applications as they were. Co worker did same thing, me mor than her though. IF I get in trouble, shouldn’t she? Thanks

  8. I feel like Will Smith, can you be my Jada?

  9. […] that. It’s what makes them so attractive during a recession, and why people say it’s impossible to fire a government employee. There are things you can do that won’t impress your boss, but none of these will have any […]

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