Defense Department file photo

New Defense Employees Will Be on Probation Longer

Legislation headed to the president would extend to two years the probationary period for new hires at the department.

New hires at the Defense Department would have a longer probationary period under a bill President Obama is expected to sign into law soon.

A provision in the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill extends to two years the time newly-hired employees at Defense are on probation; currently, most new federal workers and new supervisors are on probation for one year, some a bit longer. During that time, they can be fired with no advance notice and very limited or no right of appeal, depending on the position. 

The Senate earlier this week passed the Defense authorization bill. Obama, who vetoed the last version of the Defense authorization legislation he received in October, has not threatened to veto this bill.

“We note that the probationary period extension will be beneficial only if an agency has effective performance management practices in place and uses the extra time for the purpose intended,” said a summary of the legislation from congressional conferees. “We expect the secretary of Defense to assess the adequacy of leadership training provided to supervisors in DoD components and Defense agencies in order to ensure supervisors obtain the skills needed to effectively conduct performance management responsibilities.”

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said there was no reason to extend the “already ample” probationary period for new workers. “We believe one year is more than sufficient for any competent supervisor to assess whether an employee should continue in their federal employment.”

In July, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., introduced a bill that would extend to two years the probationary period for new feds and new senior executives across government. The House this summer passed the 2015 VA Accountability Act, now pending in the Senate, which would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further. 

The Merit Systems Protection Board has urged federal agencies and managers to make better use of the probationary period to remove employees who aren’t performing. In research released this past summer, MSPB said one of its “primary findings was that agencies were not using the probationary period as intended.”

The Defense authorization bill also delays step or “within-grade” increases for employees who receive unsatisfactory performance reviews. Those with unsatisfactory reviews would have to improve their performance to qualify for a step increase that comes with higher pay. The provision provides the Defense secretary “with the authority to require satisfactory performance by civilian employees in order to qualify for periodic step increases based on that service.”