Firing problematic government workers is so difficult that many managers don't even try. During a 2007 speech, Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain acknowledged that the civil service system almost prohibits firing people even if they're incompetent or guilty of gross misconduct. “We must do away with the current system that treats federal employment as a right and makes dismissal a near impossibility," he said.
Dismissal procedures vary from one agency to another, but getting rid of a government employee always involves a process. A manager generally needs to build a case to justify taking disciplinary action against an employee. This includes establishing a record of oral and written warnings, but that can be challenging. When employees are reprimanded, they often respond by filing grievances with human resources. Then the managers are obligated to address the alleged issue.
Retaliation and Discrimination
After a manager reprimands an employee once, she must be careful about taking further disciplinary action. If an employee is approached again about a performance of behavior issue, she may claim the manager is retaliating because she filed an HR grievance or some other personal reason. If the employee is a member of a protected class as defined by anti-discrimination laws, the situation can be more challenging. Employees will sometimes allege their managers are taking action due to prejudices against their sex, race or religion. Managers must address these claims, and HR must take them very seriously because discrimination is a federal crime.
When employees are union members, the process of firing them can be even more difficult. A union wields a lot of power in its members' employment relationships. Union leaders will often come to their members' defense and file charges against government employers, alleging that action is being taking for dubious reasons, such as retaliation against union participation. Managers are also obliged to address union claims.
Throughout the process, managers often feel unsupported by senior management, who may discourage harsh action against problematic employees and prefer to settle matters quietly. To diffuse the situation between employees and managers, senior management sometimes steps in and cleans up an employee's personnel file. For example, written warnings may be downgraded to oral warnings, "The Complete Guide to Hiring and Firing Government Employees" says. This makes it more difficult for managers to get rid of problematic employees.
A Tiring Process
When an employee is fired, there are a number of appeals processes available to fight a termination, explains John Palguta of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for an improved federal work force. "If you want to fire an employee, you're taking on a task that is very intense and difficult, and biased in favor of protecting employees, and it can take a year or more to complete," adds Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. Instead of trying to fire people, many managers move problem employees to other positions or departments. And some find it easier to just ignore the problems altogether.
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