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Watchdog to Agencies: Fire More Poor Performers During Probationary Period

Many federal managers aren't aware of tools available during this time, and don’t remember when it’s about to end, GAO finds.

Federal employees who aren’t cutting the mustard should be handled by well-trained managers and not kept onboard past mandatory probationary periods, the Government Accountability Office concluded.

“Supervisors who take performance management seriously and have the necessary training and support can help poorly performing employees either improve or realize they are not a good fit for the position,” the watchdog wrote in a report released on Monday. “We found that a number of employees voluntarily resign after receiving negative performance feedback. The probationary period for individuals entering the federal service is the ideal time to remove those who cannot do the work required of the position, but this period could be more effectively used by agencies.”

About 3,500 federal employees were terminated either for performance or a combination of performance and conduct in fiscal 2013, GAO found.  Most of these dismissals took place during the probationary period, which was set up under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act and through subsequent regulations to both protect employees from arbitrary firing and to avoid entrenching unqualified employees in a permanent status that makes dismissal more complex and costly.

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Read Government Executive's January/February cover stories for a more in depth look at Uncle Sam's struggles with hiring and firing.

“It can take six months to a year (and sometimes longer) to dismiss an employee,” GAO noted. “According to selected experts and GAO’s literature review, concerns over internal support, lack of performance management training and legal issues can also reduce a supervisor’s willingness to address poor performance.”

The chief human capital officers GAO interviewed in 2014 said too often supervisors “do not use this time to make performance-related decisions about an employee’s performance because they may not know that the probationary period is ending or they have not had time to observe performance in all critical areas.”

The Office of Personnel Management uses its website, in-person training and guidebooks to help managers gain the skills to reduce indecision on an employee’s long-term fate. “Day-to-day performance management activities (such as providing regular performance feedback to employees) can produce more desirable outcomes for agencies and employees than dismissal options,” the report said.

Too often, however, agencies are not aware of the training material and in some cases it fell short of their needs. “Going forward, it will be important for OPM to use existing information sources, such as Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, to inform decisions about what material to develop and how best to distribute it,” GAO said.

The watchdog recommended that OPM and the chief human capital officers, working with unions, evaluate current practices to determine which should be implemented more widely. These include extending the probationary period beyond a year, particularly in certain occupations; providing managers with opportunities to rotate into assignments that might sharpen their skills in evaluating employees; establishing a dual-career track so that specialists who are not inclined toward management can still advance; and using automation to alert managers when an employee’s probationary period expires.

On reviewing a draft of the report, OPM largely agreed with the recommendations, except the notion that OPM should determine the cost and benefits of automated alerts. OPM said that is best left to the agencies.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement: “The probationary period is one of the best tools the federal government has to weed out poor-performing employees….It is unacceptable that some agencies let the first year slip by without conducting performance reviews, never aware that the probationary period had expired. The federal government cannot use tax dollars effectively if it does not hire, train and keep effective supervisors.”

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