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.

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