Yes, You Can Fire Incompetent Government Employees

The Merit Systems Protection Board issues refresher guidance in Civil Service principles and prohibited practices.

In time for the coming presidential transition, the Merit Systems Protection Board on Monday issued updated guidance for agencies to use in ensuring respect for the Civil Service’s nine Merit System Principles and 13 Prohibited Personnel Practices.

“Our research shows that federal employees believe their agencies have varying success—and substantial room for improvement—in achieving the vision of the MSPs,” wrote board chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann in a letter to President Obama. “Notably, surveys revealed a belief among both Chief Human Capital Officers and human resources staff that employees at all levels lack knowledge about how to fully adhere to the MSPs and avoid PPPs.”

As established in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, the principles set the federal agency approaches to such basics as compensation, conduct and retention, while the 13 prohibited personnel practices define such workplace don’ts as coercing employees into political acts; hiring family members; showing favoritism based on race, gender, age or ethnicity; and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Despite the government’s popular reputation for never firing incompetents, for example, the principle of retention states, “Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.”

The chairman stressed that the new guidance, titled “The Merit System Principles: Guiding the Fair and Effective Management of the Federal Workforce,” should prove useful for incoming political appointees to the new administration as well as front-line employees.

The paper was based on reviews of relevant case law, recent efforts to improve supervisory and managerial training and results from two surveys, one given to chief human capital officers on training efforts around the principles, and the other an MSPB period survey of employees on their perceptions of the principles.

The surveys “show that federal employees believe there is room for improvement in how well their agencies are supporting the MSPs,” the report said. “For example, approximately 20 percent of agency questionnaire respondents said that nonsupervisory employees and political appointees received no systematic training on the MSPs. Because political appointees exercise substantial authority over personnel policies and decisions, it is critical that they understand their legal and ethical obligations under the MSPs,” it continued. “If employees misunderstand their rights and responsibilities under the MSPs, they may fail to speak up or seek redress when appropriate to do so, or view agency decisions and practices as improper, even when they are both legal and proper.”

An example of the recent case law review was the case of Chandler v. Treasury Department in which an employee appealed the agency’s decision to furlough her for five to seven days under a Sequestration Order to cut spending. The appellant sought information on the agency’s reasoning. The board found the furlough met the requirement to “promote the efficiency of the service” and denied her discovery requests.

The report’s long list of recommendations for improving education in the Merit Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices are addressed separately to agencies, supervisors, human resources professionals and employees.