Myth vs. fact: Are feds likelier to die than be fired?

Tuesday - 7/26/2011, 10:40am EDT

John Palguta, vice president for policy, Partnership for Public Service

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By Courtney Thompson
Federal News Radio

USA Today recently reported that federal workers were more likely to die of natural causes than lose their jobs, but experts on federal service suggest the analysis left out critical data worth considering.

Though the article indicated agencies had fired fewer than 1 percent of employees in a workforce of 2.1 million during the last budget year, John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, said the number "overlooks the fact that there's a whole lot of other movement that goes on."

"For a federal manager, they have an obligation to deal with poor performance including removing folks," Palguta said. He said in fiscal year 2010, there were 3,200 employees governmentwide who died, which was fewer than the 11,668 workers who were fired. He also said there were more than 200,000 employees who left the federal government and of those workers, approximately 52,000 retired, 64,000 were released from temporary or seasonal appointments and another 74,000 employees quit.

"I think it's getting harder for agencies to tolerate folks who aren't carrying the weight because it's going to be hard with the budgets to get the job done," Palguta said. "I think this may actually provide more pressure to deal with poor performers rather than less."

To deal with unsatisfactory workers, Palguta said many federal managers are using "alternative methods" to manage the firing process which can often result in a difficult and lengthy process. One strategy mentioned was what he called the "hard conversation" method in which employers discuss unacceptable performance with their employees.

"I've talked to a lot of federal managers who say, 'You know, yeah I've got a lot of people to leave. I didn't have to fire them. They voluntarily left,'" he said.

Unfortunately for employers, Palguta said there still are some employees who should not be in the federal workforce. Agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management are creating task force groups to examine employee work performance and fix the issue. Palguta said the goal of personnel management should be effective government policies rather than meeting quotas.

Moving forward, Palguta said management leaders should first focus on making poor performers into better ones. Co-workers, he also said, play an important role in employee work performance because they often have to carry the slacking employee's workload.

"I talked to a union official years ago who correctly said, 'You know, if we have a poorly performing employee and nothing is being done, we actually have two poorly performing employees - that employee and the employee's supervisor,'" he added.

Palguta also recommended looking at flaws in the due-process system to determine its difficulties and additional concerns from managers.

"We've had a long history in the federal government of being concerned about that small percentage of employees who are not performing at an acceptable level," he said. "When you deal with it, half the time those employees can be made acceptable or better ... We do have that small percent left who are not being dealt with and that's something we do have to focus on."

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Courtney Thompson is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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