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Senior Execs to Congress: Making Us At-Will Employees Will 'Destroy' Us

The push to make it easier to fire bad apples in the SES is scaring top career officials, according to a new survey.

Current and former senior executives fear that making it easier to fire top career officials will politicize the top ranks of government, erode morale, and damage efforts to recruit and retain talented employees, according to a new survey.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the Senior Executives Association said any legislation that pushed for “at-will employment” of senior executives would politicize the SES – the career corps that serves as an indispensable bridge between an administration’s political appointees and the federal workforce. More than 90 percent of the survey’s 476 respondents who are current senior executives said making senior execs at-will employees would prevent them from disagreeing with their political bosses -- and make it more likely that those bosses would fire them arbitrarily.

SEA conducted the survey between August and September 2014, at a time when lawmakers had introduced several bills to make it easier to fire senior executives. President Obama in August 2014 signed into law legislation that makes it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to discipline and fire senior executives engaged in misconduct or wrongdoing.

While SEA’s survey asked respondents about legislative proposals that would allow senior executives to be fired at will, there are no bills currently pending that would completely strip away the due process rights of senior executives. The 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act still includes an expedited appeals process for fired VA senior executives.

Even so, lawmakers are having conversations publicly and privately about the restrictions around firing government employees, and some are wondering why the public sector can’t be more like industry when it comes to terminations, said Jenny Mattingley, legislative director for the Senior Executives Association. “The idea [of at-will employment] is still out there, even if there hasn’t been legislation,” said Mattingley. “The idea is still there, especially in connection with senior executives.”

At-will employment essentially means that an employer can fire an employee at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.

A House Veterans’ Affairs Committee aide said that the panel does not have any plans to introduce legislation that would make senior executives at-will employees. Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., shepherded the 2014 VA Accountability Act through the House, and since, has sponsored bills that would affect the compensation of VA senior executives. Miller has said he believes that another bill he is sponsoring will attract, rather than scare away, talented career employees.

But SEA’s survey showed a real fear among senior execs that any legislation aimed at creating at-will employment would be a disaster for the prestigious corps. “It will convert the SES into a cadre of political hacks,” said one respondent in a written comment to the survey. “The professionals will depart, to be replaced by poorly qualified friends of political appointees.” It also would harm government operations, respondents said. “Say good-bye to any meaningful attempts to innovate and lead change, and create more efficient and effective government.”

Many current and former senior execs pointed out that agencies already have the tools and authority to hold senior executives accountable for their performance and conduct. Ninety-four percent of current employee respondents and 86 percent of retired respondents said they believed the current laws are sufficient for holding senior executives accountable for performance and conduct.

Senior executives now can be fired for poor performance, misconduct or the failure to complete assigned duties within the confines of due process. But it’s not a simple or expeditious process, and that’s by design.

A recent Government Accountability Office report also found that most agencies are not making meaningful distinctions in performance ratings and bonuses for senior executives – a key component in maintaining SES status. About 85 percent of career senior executives received “outstanding” or “exceeds fully successful” ratings in their performance reviews between fiscal years 2010 and 2013, at the same time that agencies have made smaller distinctions in the amount of individual bonuses, GAO found. This has created a system where nearly everyone is considered outstanding, and truly exceptional senior executives are treated similarly to their above-average peers when it comes to performance ratings and awards, the watchdog concluded. 

Perhaps the most worrisome finding in SEA’s survey related to the future of the SES, as expressed by a potential candidate: “I’m a GS-15 who has spent more than a decade preparing for the SES. I believe in serving the public and was looking forward to having a position with more responsibilities. I’m reconsidering my career plans. I can’t afford to put my compensation at risk while I still have kids in school.” 

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