Federal employees continue to see favoritism in promotions and awards

While federal employees are less likely than they were 15 years ago to believe they've suffered outright job discrimination, perceptions of favoritism remain widespread, according to a new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

In a 2007 survey MSPB administered, 72 percent of employees said promotions were based on who they knew. Just 40 percent cited competence as a reason for advancement and 36 percent credited hard work.

"People say I was discriminated against by a supervisor who is not like me, and the fact boiled down to that they do not like me," said Cynthia Ferentinos, the MSPB project manager for the report. "But it's not racism, it's not sexism. It's favoritism."

Employees placed a greater importance on personal connections in 2007 than in 1992, according to MSPB survey results. In 2007, 78 percent of survey respondents said it was very or somewhat important to have contacts who knew the selecting official. This was up from 38 percent in 1992.

In addition, 31 percent of respondents to the 2007 survey cited nepotism -- hiring or promoting relatives -- as a factor in the promotions process, a figure MSPB said seemed unusually high given the relatively small number of federal workers who are related to other government employees. The board did not have a comparable statistic for 1992.

The report noted similar reactions to questions about awards and pay increases. Half of MSPB's 2007 survey respondents said awards such as bonuses were based on performance, and just 40 percent said they thought improving their performance would result in higher pay. Forty percent said they thought they had been treated unfairly in some way during an awards process in the preceding two years. Only half of respondents said their performance appraisal process seemed fair to them.

Ferentinos said MSPB planned to investigate whether perceptions of favoritism were based on flawed practices, or stemmed from a failure to give candidates enough information about why they were rejected for a promotion or a raise, and how they could improve next time.

"There could be good reasons why it's who you know, in terms of having a good relationship with a mentor, with a selecting official who knows your work," she said.

While perceptions that race had an impact on hiring and promotions declined from 1992, MSPB found in 2007 that a quarter of federal employees still believed their race could be a factor in limiting their job advancement. Thirty-four percent of employees with disabilities thought their disability could also be a limiting factor.

The numbers of employees who chose not even to try for promotions because of their race or ethnicity also has fallen. In 1992, 20 percent of all federal employees, and 25 percent to 30 percent of federal employees from various minority groups, chose not to apply for a promotion because they believed their race or ethnicity would prevent them from getting the position. In 2007, the figure for total federal employees was down to 11 percent, though 16 percent to 21 percent of federal employees in various minority groups still were not applying for promotions because of perceptions their race would be a stumbling block.

MSPB found some gaps in views. In 2007, 59 percent of African-American federal employees said their organization was reluctant to promote minority employees into management, while just 17 percent of white workers said the same thing. In addition, 56 percent of African-Americans reported great or moderate on-the-job discrimination, while only 15 percent of employees overall said that African-American federal employees experienced significant discrimination at work.

Ferentinos said one key way agencies can help overcome perceptions of bias and favoritism is by helping managers and supervisors do their job better, so they can give employees more useful information about how to make progress in their careers and how to improve their performance.

"Part of the problem is [supervisors] say I'm so focused on accomplishing the work, I don't have time for this management stuff, giving the feedback, and making sure the training needs are met," she said.

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