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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Are You More Likely to Die on the Job Than Get Fired?


USA Today is at it again, with another subtle, nuanced, balanced look at the federal workforce. The headline on this one: "Some federal workers more likely to die than lose jobs."

First off, not to put too fine a point on it, but I think all workers are more likely to die than lose their jobs. Unfortunately, your chances of death in this world are 100 percent. But what the article really means is that in some agencies, your chances of dying while holding a particular position are higher than being fired from it.

There's no question that federal agencies don't fire or lay off large numbers of employees. Federal managers' track record, on the whole, in dealing with poor performers is not exactly stellar, if you believe employee surveys. Still, there's once again an apples-to-oranges element to USA Today's analysis. By comparing federal agencies to the entire universe of private companies, the report doesn't take into account that government's workforce is more professional than the private sector as a whole.

Nona Willis Aronowitz of Good quotes Heather Boushey, senior economist for the Center for American Progress, on this point: "Many federal workers are highly technical and better educated than the population overall. The government has invested years of training to place them in a very specific job, so they're much less likely to fire them."

Indeed, USA Today acknowledges that within government, blue-collar workers are twice as likely to be fired as white-collar employees. And it notes that the job with the highest firing rate in government is one where you'd expect a lot of turnover in the private sector, too: food preparation.

Should federal agencies be firing more poor performers? Quite possibly. But something tells me that if large numbers of professional white-collar employees in government were being dismissed for incompetence, USA Today wouldn't be publishing a story portraying that as a sign of healthy management.


Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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