Promotion or Pink Slip

What do agencies gain by forcing valued employees to take promotions under threat of demotion or firing?

For many years, Kent A. Robinson was a GS-13 attorney in the Small Business Administration's Los Angeles office. Then SBA officials informed him that they wanted to promote him to a GS-14 management job and transfer him to Fresno, Calif. Robinson said he wasn't interested, arguing that "he had neither the desire nor the temperament to be a supervisory attorney," according to a federal appeals court ruling. (One guesses he also had no desire to move from Los Angeles to Fresno, but that's another matter.)

SBA officials were unmoved by Robinson's lack of interest. Take the promotion or you're fired, they said. Still, he refused, so the agency started removal proceedings. He then retired, but challenged SBA's action before the Merit Systems Protection Board. He lost, both at MSPB and in the appeals court, because it's pretty clear-cut that an agency has the legal right to fire a federal employee who refuses to accept a reassignment.

The court said SBA had picked Robinson because of his "experience, his potential for leadership, the difficulties the SBA had eliciting a volunteer for the position, and the SBA's desire to select a candidate for the Fresno position from a district office that already had at least three staff attorneys." All valid reasons. Still, it's hard to see the wisdom in forcing someone into a supervisory position. If an employee insists, "I'd be a bad manager," that is very likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The federal government professes to be gravely concerned that its experienced senior-level employees are about to leave government in what Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer is fond of calling a "retirement tsunami." OPM estimates that 60 percent of federal employees will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years and 40 percent actually will.

At a news conference this spring, the OPM director said one of the agency's priorities was to encourage federal employees close to retirement to stay on the job longer. "When the time comes, great," Springer said. "But don't rush into it."

If agencies are desperate to make sure their good people don't leave for private sector opportunities, they often have a funny way of showing it.

In May, the Los Angeles Times reported on the FBI's attempt to force field office agents to accept positions at Washington headquarters. About one-fifth of the 1,500 top FBI jobs in Washington are vacant, the paper reported-partly because of the positions Director Robert Mueller has created in recent years to beef up the agency's counterterrorist capability. So the FBI is requiring field agents with five years of managerial experience to apply for supervisory jobs in Washington. Those who refuse are dropped out of the managerial ranks and handed a pay cut.

The FBI's action comes at a time when many corporations, concerned about the ongoing threat of terrorism, are in the market for high-level security officers. FBI agents-especially those with management experience-are prime candidates for such jobs.

Like SBA officials in Los Angeles, FBI officials have good reasons to seek to shift employees to areas where they're needed. But their actions also show evidence of a certain industrial-age mentality toward workforce management. "You'll take the transfer and like it" simply is not a message that is likely to engender loyalty from workers.

It's hard to imagine an effective private company ordering a valued employee with leadership potential to accept a promotion and transfer under threat of demotion or firing. In the event that a company desperately needed someone to transfer, the firm would most likely put together a very attractive package to encourage the employee to make the move and not jump ship to a competitor.

Of course, federal agencies are limited in the financial incentives they can offer to employees under such circumstances. But they would do well to place more emphasis on finding creative ways to overcome that disadvantage and keep top performers in the fold rather than on threatening retribution against those who don't want to move up or over.

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