Don’t Blame the System

Managers can hire and fire federal employees, a new book argues.

Conventional wisdom holds that federal managers can't effectively hire, manage and discipline their workers because the government's civil service system hamstrings them with endless rules, regulations, procedures, limitations and requirements. In many government offices, that conventional wisdom has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Managers throw up their hands and blame the system for their inability to attract strong workers, keep their workforce productive, improve the performance of underachievers and fire chronic poor performers.

A new book argues that managers can oversee their workforces effectively if they adopt a can-do attitude and figure out how to make the system work for them. "While some degree of bureaucracy will always exist in government, the key is to understand the system that is in place, streamline it whenever possible and use it to your best advantage," author Stewart Liff says in his new book, The Complete Guide to Hiring and Firing Government Employees (American Management Association, 2009).

Liff spent 32 years in government, working both as a human resources management specialist and a line executive. Now retired, he has written two more books and was featured in a a July 2002 cover package in Government Executive.

Liff's new book tosses aside the typical esoteric discourse on civil service reform and hunkers down into the weeds of current law to help managers figure out how to hire the best workers and get rid of the worst now -- not in some utopian, imaginary world of the future.

In the hiring section of the book, Liff describes how a smart manager can use the budget process to do what he calls "anticipatory recruiting," or hiring trainees before a wave of vacancies hits. In the typical government process, managers hire reactively, waiting for vacancies to open, submitting paperwork to HR and then waiting months for new employees. "If you leave the budget to other people, who are not sensitive to its impact on operations, you run the risk of becoming a slave to the budget," he writes. "The more you understand the budget process and use it hand in hand with sound recruitment strategies, the more resources you will have at your disposal and the better you will be able to perform."

In the chapter on firing, Liff offers what could amount to heresy in the typical discourse about dealing with poor performers in the federal government. "There is absolutely no reason why government managers cannot and should not take action against bad employees, up to and including removal," he writes. "The systems for terminating employees, whether for conduct, performance or both, are simply not that difficult to either follow or administer."

He then describes the nooks and crannies of federal firing processes and how managers can navigate them to cull their weakest links. Managers who fear the numerous avenues of appeal available to fired workers can take solace in statistics that Liff cites: "The bottom line is that management's real odds of losing a removal are very low."

That said, Liff advises managers that firing is the last resort. A manager who constantly fires people would have to judge his human resources management skills a failure, since strong hiring practices and solid performance management systems should keep the number of poorly performing employees to a minimum. That notion reinforces the book's central premise. In the federal government, managers can manage. The first step is believing they can.