Job Performance, Not Tenure, Now Top Consideration for Defense Layoffs

Defense Department file photo

The Defense Department will lay off civilians primarily on the basis of their performance, according to a new policy, breaking with the rest of federal government that considers tenure foremost.

The policy was implemented at the behest of Congress, which required the change in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The overhaul is not intended to signal any imminent reductions in force, a senior Defense official said Wednesday. If any RIFs do become necessary, the new policy would guarantee they are implemented fairly and consistently, the official said.

The primary consideration in layoffs is now the “rating of record,” an average of the two most recent performance scores an employee receives over the previous four years. That score will be rounded to the nearest whole number. When employees have the same rating, the next determination is now based on tenure. Defense civilians will be divided into three groups: those on a limited term appointment, “career conditional” employees with in a permanent job but with fewer than three years of experience and permanent employees with more than three years of experience.

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Temporary and termed employees are always on the chopping block first, meaning all workers in that category would have to be laid off before employees in the other two groups would become eligible.

The third tiebreaker for determining RIFs is known as “average score,” which provides a more detailed look at each category of a performance review upon which employees are assessed. The average score does not round to the nearest whole number. If employees are still tied at that point, the RIF decision would come down to veterans preference broken into three subgroups: those with a 30 percent disability rating or higher, all other veterans and those with no preference eligibility. The final tiebreaker is the employee’s service computation date, adjusted for date of entering military service.

The Defense Department is in the midst of moving nearly all of its employees onto a new performance management and appraisal system, a process it expects to complete by 2018. That system, the senior Defense official said, would eliminate much of the subjectivity inherent in supervisor evaluations. It was “developed to allow for consistency,” the official added.

President Trump this week issued a memorandum to freeze hiring across government, which included a mandate for the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to come up with a long-term plan by April 22 to shrink the size of the federal government through attrition.

“I don’t know what the plan will look like, I think that is still being shaped,” the Defense official said. “What I am confident about is whatever results there are, the department will have procedures that treat people fairly and consistently, and what we’ll be able to do is retain the highest performers.”  

Workforce reduction measures are already under way at some Pentagon offices due to an initiative to trim headquarters staff by 25 percent. The cuts were originally implemented in response to a department memorandum and later codified in the same 2016 defense authorization act that contained the RIF changes. The Defense Department never asked Congress to change its RIF procedures, the official said, noting lawmakers proactively wanted the Pentagon to retain its highest performers.

The official called the implementation of Congress’ mandate “very challenging,” saying it was an “intensive, in-depth process” that took an extended period of time. In the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill, Congress authorized Defense to temporarily increase its maximum buyout incentive from $25,000 to $40,000. The department is working on guidance to implement that change as well. The department intends to always offer buyouts before it begins laying off workers, the official said.

The RIF guidance could still go through some alterations, as Defense components must still, in some circumstances, negotiate terms with labor unions at the local level. 

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