It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire Bad Federal Workers
Policy + Politics

It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire Bad Federal Workers


Firing government employees is such a lengthy and complicated process that most agencies don’t even bother getting rid of their worst workers — no matter how badly they’re failing at their jobs.

The federal government’s ridiculously inefficient firing process is described and scrutinized in a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office. The auditors explain that the termination process for poor performing workers can take between 170 to 370 days depending on the situation. Sometimes the process includes counseling sessions for the employee, then a grace period during which the employee can attempt to demonstrate improvement.

Related: Why Federal Workers Are Better Off Than the Rest of Us ​

If managers decide to go forward with termination, employees can still appeal that decision, which can take another 200 days to complete.

“The time and resource commitment needed to remove a poor performing permanent employee can be substantial,” the GAO said. “It can take six months to a year (and sometimes longer) to dismiss an employee.”

The lengthy process explains why so few government workers are actually fired. The GAO estimates that about 3,500 federal employees out of 2.5 million are terminated each year. Instead of weeding out poor performers, agencies are keeping them on the job to avoid that firing process, which auditors describe as “bureaucratic obstructions.”

The result is a federal workforce that is less effective than it could be and suffers from a yawning skills gap in vital areas like cyber security, technology and engineering, as auditors have found.

Related: Federal Workers’ Skills Gap Costs Overruns of 44 Percent

This also unfairly affects taxpayers, who pay the salaries of government employees that should no longer be employed. Remember, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency worker who was caught watching porn for six hours a day and continues to hold a job?

The firing process is set up differently for employees just starting their government jobs. Federal workers have a 1-year probation period in which managers are supposed to closely evaluate their performance. If the workers don’t seem to make the cut during the year-long probation period, they can be let go without the lengthy process.

The auditors say managers aren’t currently using the probation period efficiently. They recommend that the supervisors should improve their oversight over new workers and, if necessary, expand the probation period in order to have more time to weed out bad workers.

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