Work Auditions

Here's an idea: New employees should excel to keep their jobs.

In his new monograph, "Good to Great and the Social Sectors," described in the January Management Matters column, author Jim Collins talks about a teacher with a surprising policy. The teacher, who is head of the science department at a high school, tells new hires that they are not likely to keep their jobs for more than three years. Only excellent teachers can stay longer and obtain full tenure, he says. Even if they're good teachers, not great ones, they won't get permanent jobs in the department.

That method is the opposite of the one used at most schools, where tenure is granted to all but the worst teachers. The same is true at most federal agencies, where a yearlong probationary period for new hires is "a mere formality," a recent report stated. The Merit Systems Protection Board found that new employees are largely considered full-fledged federal workers with all the civil service protections that come with that status-even though probation is supposed to be a time to test out new candidates, and when the burden is technically on the employees, not the government, to show why they should keep their jobs. "To look at a probationer as a candidate for final appointment and not as an employee with the full protections of federal employment may require a dramatic shift in culture and mind-sets," said the August MSPB report, "The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity."

Many managers think their hiring task is over once they select a candidate from the applicant pool. While good selection processes generally yield strong employees, sometimes excellent applicants do not make excellent workers. Under current practice, federal managers generally get stuck with whomever they've hired because they don't take advantage of the probationary period, after which civil service protections for federal employees make firing a laborious task. The MSPB found that many new hires didn't even know they were serving in a probationary status. No one had told them.

One reason federal managers don't use probation to weed out mediocre employees is that their agencies don't give them the leeway allowed under the law. Agencies require managers to go through standard civil service disciplinary procedures, even though the law would allow them to more easily remove employees who are good but not great. Another reason is that federal law only allows for a one-year probationary period-not enough time for managers to evaluate an employee's effectiveness in complicated jobs. (Because their first year has a steep learning curve, teachers get three years.)

Regardless of the current restrictions, federal managers could take better advantage of the probationary period, according to the MSPB report. "Probationers should be notified, before accepting a job offer, that they will be probationers and what that means," it stated.

Flipping the probationary period on its head, from a time after which only the worst employees don't keep their jobs, to a time when only the best get to stay, is no small feat. The science department head whom Collins profiled gave a new teacher three years to prove herself, but decided she was not good enough. That was not easy news to tell her. But the department was better off for it-and so were students, because an excellent teacher replaced her.

Making the probationary period mean something might not be a good change for decent-but not great-employees. But it could be a great change for the people who depend on an agency's services.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.