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New Federal Workers More Likely to Be Fired After Filing Whistleblower Complaints

Between 17% and 69% of workers in their probationary period who filed whistleblower retaliation complaints were fired in 2018, GAO finds.

New federal employees still in a probationary period are more likely to be fired after filing whistleblower complaints than their permanent employee colleagues, according to a new report, which questioned whether those probationary workers were receiving equal treatment. 

Federal workers generally spend one to two years on probation upon starting their jobs, which allows agencies to evaluate the employees before their appointments become final. Probationary employees are not entitled to many of the same protections and appeal rights as their non-probationary colleagues, but they can bring allegations of wrongdoing to the Office of Special Counsel. They can also file complaints with the independent federal agency if they believe they have been reassigned, demoted or fired as a result of reporting alleged mismanagement or wrongdoing. 

According to a Government Accountability Office report issued Thursday, 14,000 of the roughly 2 million civilian federal employees filed whistleblower disclosures or retaliation complaints between fiscal years 2014 and 2018. In those five years, GAO found somewhere between 7% and 18% of complaints were filed by employees in their probationary period. A flaw in the data prevented the auditors from making a more precise determination. 

Still, GAO found through its estimates that probationary employees who filed complaints with OSC were “consistently terminated at higher rates than permanent employees.” At least 10% of probationary employees were fired after filing whistleblower complaints in 2018, compared to 3% among permanent employees. The dismissal rate could have ranged as high as 47% that year for those on probation, GAO said, citing uncertainty in the data, whereas the rate for permanent workers could have topped out at only 5%. 

Between 17% and 69% of probationary workers who filed whistleblower retaliation complaints were fired in 2018, GAO found, compared to between 6% and 10% of the permanent workforce. GAO said the data suggested a “potential relationship” between probationary workers filing a whistleblower complaint and a higher chance of termination, but the congressional watchdog was unable to confirm a definite causation. Probationary employees are, by design, fired generally at a higher rate than permanent career employees: about 1.1% of probationary workers are fired annually, compared to 0.3% of the full federal workforce. 

Still, GAO said whistleblower retaliation “may be more pronounced” among probationary employees. 

“Probationary employees, by definition, are relatively new to their positions and are thus uniquely vulnerable to retaliation from employers due to the limited protections afforded them,” GAO said. 

GAO urged OSC to better track information related to its complainants. 

“Without consistent quality information, including information on probationary status, OSC cannot have reasonable assurance that it is adequately identifying trends and challenges,” GAO said. The auditors added that without proper data, OSC cannot ensure “equal treatment of probationary employees."