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WebMemo #54 on Regulation

November 8, 2001

Inadequate Remedies for Poorly Performing Federal Workers Would Undermine Airport Security

By

On November 6, 2001, Senator Daschle stated he would like to fire the company (Argenbright) and workers that do baggage screening for airport security for poor performance and replace them with federal employees. The good news is that airlines can easily remove Argenbright or any of its workers for poor performance if they want to. The bad news is that many members of Congress are proposing a solution, federal employees, that would make it nearly impossible to remove airport security workers in the future for poor performance.

Removing and demoting federal employees for poor performance remains relatively rare in the civil service.[1] Even in those cases where performance has been clearly and seriously inadequate - perhaps deserving dismissal such as Senator Daschle would extend to Argenbright - the Federal government historically has not been disposed towards demoting or removing deficient employees.[2] For example,

  • In fiscal year 1997, just 0.1 percent of the 2.7 million federal employees (or 3,550) were separated from their jobs for reasons related to poor performance. Just 100 were demoted for inadequate performance and only 1,257 were denied pay increases because of poor work.[3]

  • Of the 100,260 to 124,650 poorly performing workers in the federal government, just 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent were removed, less than 0.1 percent were demoted, and 88 percent were given pay raises.[4]
Although the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 was intended to make it easier to remove poorly performing federal workers, the procedures it created to guide supervisors are the very ones that deter managers from removing unacceptable employees.[5] These procedures involve an appraisal period, an improvement period, often of several months, as well as a notice period and an appeals process. In addition, the evidence necessary to demonstrate a pattern of unacceptable performance can be extensive.[6]

In fact, federal supervisors find the amount of time and energy that is required to remove a poor performer to be extremely long and daunting.[7] Moreover, the removal process is often subverted by a poor performer's counter-charges, grievances, accusations, appeals, general hostility and attempts to subvert the supervisor.[8]

If anybody would know how hard it is to remove federal employees for poor performance, it would be the federal workers themselves. And federal employee surveys and studies over the past 23 years consistently show that most federal workers and supervisors judge the response to poor performance to be woefully inadequate.[9]
  • In a 1978, the General Accounting Office found that: Supervisors and managers perceive firing as a difficult chore that often lacks top-level management support. People at all levels fear reprisals from employees who may file adverse action appeals, discrimination complaints, and lawsuits...Removal procedures are complex, especially the detail and specificity required in stating reasons for removal; the process is also lengthy and time consuming. Supervisors and managers instead tend to use an informal system of working around or even promoting unsatisfactory employees.[10]

  • Surveys conducted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the1980's and 1990's consistently find that most federal workers do not believe corrective action is taken when employees perform poorly. Very small percentages of federal workers believe that poor performers will be removed for inadequate performance.[11]

  • In 1995, federal supervisors indicated that: the procedures for dealing with poor performance are too complicated, time consuming, or onerous; they do not get higher level management support; and they perceive their decisions will be reversed or that they will be falsely accused of discrimination in their actions.[12]

  • In 1997, a survey of 9,700 Federal employees revealed that the issue of handling poor performance was their greatest concern. Nearly half of the respondents said that agencies had a major problem correcting poor performance, and even more said the same thing about the firing of poor performers.[13]

  • In 1998, some 44 percent of federal employees said they did not believe that corrective actions are taken in their organizations when fellow workers do not meet performance standards.[14]

  • In 2001, some 67 percent of federal employees believe their organizations do not do a very good job at disciplining poor performers.[15]

In the private sector the profit motive provides the incentive to dismiss poorly performing workers who are not contributing to the bottom line. Some businesses may have no choice but to fire unsatisfactory performers or risk going out of business. In the Federal government, however, supervisors rarely have such stimulus to act.[16] In fact, many supervisors report there is little negative cost to them for taking no action.[17] Employees that work for every member of Congress can be fired at anytime for poor performance. The same standard should apply to airport security.

D. Mark Wilson is a former Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.




[1] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Supervisors and Poor Performers, 1999, p. 8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 15.

[4] Heritage Foundation calculations based on U.S. Office of Personnel Management data.

[5] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Supervisors and Poor Performers, 1999, p. 28.

[6] Ibid., p. 18.

[7] U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story," January 1999, p. 21.

[8] Ibid.

[9] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Supervisors and Poor Performers, 1999, p. 8.

[10] U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Poor Performers in Government," p. 4.

[11] Ibid., p. 3.

[12] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, "Removing Poor Performers in the Federal Service," 1995.

[13] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, "Adherence to the Merit Principles in the Workplace," 1997.

[14] National Partnership for Reinventing Government, Employee Survey Results, December 9, 1998.

[15] Paul C. Light, "Federal Employees - Give us a Chance to Do Our Jobs," Brookings Institution, November 2001.

[16] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Supervisors and Poor Performers, 1999, p. 25.

[17] U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Poor Performers in Government," p. 3.

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