MSPB: Supervisors don't fire poor performers in probationary period

By Karen Rutzick

As the government considers overhauling the federal personnel system in an effort to provide better management flexibilities, a new study finds that there's at least one personnel tool already in place that's not being used: the probationary period.

A probationary period is an initial window, usually of one year, during which the probationer is not considered to be a full federal employee and is not subject to protections under the government, including the right to appeal a removal.

Despite the fact that a supervisor can easily remove an employee in the first year, 52 percent of supervisors surveyed said they expected to retain poor performers - who they would not have hired in the first place if they could do it over again - anyhow. An additional 17 percent said they were not sure if they would retain the probationer.

The survey was conducted by the Office of Policy and Evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that conducts studies of the civil service and reviews significant actions of the Office of Personnel Management. The office surveyed approximately 600 probationers and their supervisors for the report.

One impetus behind the recent push to craft new personnel systems for the Defense and Homeland Security departments was to provide "a lot more flexibility, including taking actions on poor performers," said Steve Nelson, director of the Office of Policy Evaluation. The argument, Nelson said, was taking action against poor performers in the current system is too time-consuming and didn't allow for effective management or dismissal. Nelson said his study demonstrated that idea to be "hogwash," because the current system allows for ease of dismissal in the probationary period, for one, but managers are not using the flexibility.

According to MSPB, "Until the probationary period has been completed, a probationer is still an applicant for an appointment, with the burden to demonstrate why it is in the public interest for the government to finalize an appointment to the civil service for this particular individual."

Supervisors, however, aren't seeing it that way, the study found. MSPB said supervisors' responses to their survey questions indicated that many of them see the probationary period as a mere formality. One anonymous supervisor told MSPB his agency "must have a really bad employee in order to remove during [the] probationary period."

Nelson said supervisors were dealing with poorly performing probationers in the same way "that they would a 20-year veteran," including sending them to additional training, when he thinks newly hired employees "should come in with these basic skills."

What's more, a third of the new employees surveyed weren't aware of the probationary period when they began work, and almost a quarter said they still didn't know the rules of the probationary period, despite the fact they had been employed for seven months or more.

MSPB pointed out that while removal rates during the probationary period were low - about 1.6 percent - afterwards, they get even lower. By an employee's second year, removal rates were below 0.5 percent. The report said this statistic drives home the importance of the probationary period as a crucial window to rid the government of poor performers.

The board offered a number of recommendations to strengthen the probationary period's effectiveness. For example, MSPB suggested that Congress pass legislation allowing agencies to determine the probationary period, between one and three years, based on job descriptions.

MSPB also recommended that OPM require agencies to certify probationers before transitioning them to full employment status, requiring action from supervisors. In the absence of a certification, the board suggested, a probationer's employment should automatically terminate at the end of their probationary period.

It also recommended that supervisors be trained on proper use of the probationary period and their own performance evaluations should reflect their use of this personnel tool. The MSPB emphasized that before accepting a job offer, new employees should be notified about how the probationary period works and what will be expected of them during that time.

Finally, the report suggested that agencies provide support when supervisors dismiss employees in the probationary period. The report cited the example of supervisors who believe funding for a job would be lost upon termination.