Agencies Aren't Catching Bad Supervisors Early Enough

Just one-half of 1 percent of managers are removed during their probationary period.

Federal agencies are failing to take advantage of their authority to remove new supervisors and managers while they are on their initial probationary period, according to a new report, allowing those without the necessary skills to instead remain in their jobs.

Just six out of every 1,000 new supervisors fail to advance out of probation, according to new findings from the Merit Systems Protection Board. Such a rate, said the quasi-judicial executive branch agency tasked with enforcing civil service laws, almost certainly does not accurately reflect the number of managers who are not up to the task.

“Given the weaknesses MSPB has previously identified in agency leadership hiring and development practices,” the agency wrote, “it seems unlikely that so few federal supervisors would fail.”

MSPB questioned members of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council about the failure to use the probationary period, and found discomfort with taking actions and the difficulty in finding a new place for the failed supervisor were the two most common excuses. The probationary period for a manager is different than the initial, one-year flux period all federal employees face upon beginning their federal service in that the manager who fails his or her probation is not necessarily removed from the agency. Agencies told MSPB they often do not have an open, lower-ranked position for the supervisor, or do not want to create the “uncomfortable situation” of continuing to work with someone they have deemed unsuccessful, so they instead leave the individual in his or her supervisory job.

Discomfort in taking a negative action against a manager is a “longstanding problem in government,” MSPB said. The reservations range from not wanting to hurt morale to maintaining the technical skills the individual provides. Those skills are often what led to the agency promoting the employee in the first place, MSPB noted.

The agency found other factors resulting in the failure to take advantage of supervisors’ probationary period included limited performance evaluation of new managers, lack of time for top management to work with those under probation and a misunderstanding about what tools are available.

“To more effectively use the supervisory and managerial probationary periods, agencies should focus attention on the barriers that make it difficult to take action against underperforming supervisors,” MSPB concluded.

In November, the House narrowly passed the 2017 Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service (EQUALS) Act, which would increase the probationary period for any new employee or newly appointed supervisor or manager to two years. During the probationary period, agencies are not required to give feds 30 days’ notice of termination or disciplinary action, and they have limited rights to an attorney or the appeals process. The measure had support of groups like the Seniors Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association.

MSPB said if enacted the bill would “unfortunately” not “help achieve desired results for supervisors and managers” because the lengths of their probation—unlike those for new employees—were never set in statute or regulation. Just two agencies told MSPB that the length of the probation was a barrier to more effectively using it. MSPB pledged to further study the bill and provide more recommendations at a later date to help agencies better take action against underperforming supervisors.

Greg Stanford, FMA’s director of government affairs, said his group has received feedback from members only about the new employee probation, not the supervisory trial period. Still, he said FMA welcomed MSPB’s report.

“FMA advocates for excellence in public service, so we welcome MSPB’s findings and look forward to its forthcoming recommendations regarding barriers and other hindrances from taking action against underperforming supervisors, provided they protect individuals’ due process at every step,” Stanford said. He added his organization hoped the report would highlight the importance of and need for investment in supervisory training.

MSPB has often advocated for the current disciplinary process, saying agencies have at their disposal the authority to remove poorly performing or malfeasant employees. The board has issued occasional reminders of the powers they hold to fire their workers.