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.