Under the merit systems principles that govern federal human resources activity, managers must use objective criteria such as assessments of employees' knowledge, skills and abilities when making hiring, promotion, pay or other personnel decisions. They are not allowed to show preference based on personal feelings or relationships with employees.
But observers say managers could be fuzzy on the specifics of these concepts and how to apply them, leaving federal workers concerned that favoritism trumps fairness in opportunities for advancement.
"If you ask managers about the merit principles, they will look at you blankly," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "If you talk about [personnel actions] being based on merit, I have to believe that 99 percent of managers would say they understand that."
The Merit Systems Protection Board this summer launched a survey to determine how well supervisors are complying with merit principles. Limited transparency and a lack of common ground between employees and managers can lead to perceptions of playing favorites or personnel decisions being made based on an "old boy network," says Cynthia Ferentinos, senior research psychologist at MSPB's Office of Policy and Evaluation. In particular, scarce opportunities for promotions and performance awards can make employees feel like they have been passed over unfairly, she says.
MSPB works with agencies to promote good management practices and the proper use of merit principles. Equal employment opportunity and human resources professionals can attend in-person training sessions, while the agency puts information on its website and plans to offer webinars and direct outreach to employees. But the depth of managerial training programs varies, according to Ferentinos.
Observers agree that new legislation requiring federal supervisors to receive training within one year of becoming a manager, and once every three years after that would boost accountability for using the merit systems principles. Under the bill, introduced last spring, training topics include developing and discussing goals and objectives with employees, mentoring, managing poor performers, and understanding collective bargaining rights.
Many supervisors are trained using computer-based programs that don't provide opportunities to interact with others, says Patricia Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association. Instruction on disciplinary actions and management techniques should be funded and conducted face-to-face rather than handing supervisors a website to browse, she adds.
A good managerial training program would translate merit principles into operational terms, says Palguta. Sessions on basic supervisory skills, building strong merit promotion and candidate selection programs, and providing feedback through these processes would help managers make objective decisions, he says.
Some perceptions of favoritism could signal a disconnect between managers who believe they are hiring and promoting fairly and employees who don't see it that way, observers agree. Workers want to believe they are the most qualified candidates, while managers are not able to explain their decisions and why they made them, says Palguta.
"If managers are trained to communicate better and we create a culture that would improve relationships between managers and employees, then there would be less perception of unfair treatment," Niehaus says. "There always will be some, but better educated managers and better informed employees is the answer to that."