Firing Federal Employees Isn’t Easy, But It Can Be Done


Members of Congress are working overtime these days churning out, or clambering onto, legislation that would make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire senior executives. The House on May 21 passed such a bill, and there’s more to come on that subject from both sides of the Capitol and both parties. The mismanagement at VA facilities regarding patient care and the alleged cover-up in Phoenix of medical appointment scheduling delays to help top managers secure bonuses and meet performance goals for the department has consumed Washington during the last month.

Among the many questions the controversy has raised, one seems to be at the heart of the debate: Why isn’t it easier to fire career civil servants?

As is the case with most processes in the federal government, firing a career employee is not simple. There is a good reason why it isn’t so easy, or as commonplace, as it is in the private sector: There are laws protecting career civil servants from being dismissed without cause or for politically-motivated reasons. Certainly there’s a case to be made that the federal firing process (which does exist) could, and probably should, be improved. But making it too easy seriously threatens the due process long afforded to federal workers, significantly increases the risk of politically-motivated sackings, and could have adverse effects on the recruitment and retention of talented federal employees.

The federal workforce is made up of about 2.1 million employees. In fiscal 2013, only 9,559 employees were terminated or removed for discipline or performance, according to Office of Personnel Management statistics. That’s less than 1 percent of the total workforce. So, which Cabinet-level department fired the most employees (2,247) in fiscal 2013 for discipline or performance? The Veterans Affairs Department. VA is one of the largest federal agencies, but it’s not the biggest.

In our July 2012 magazine, we looked at the federal firing process for most career employees to see how it works, and why it’s underused, in Wielding the Ax. The process for senior executives is a little bit different, but they too are afforded due process under the system.

Here’s the full story

(Image via Andrey_Popov/

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 Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • 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 Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • 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.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


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