The Complete Guide to Hiring and Firing Government Employees

The Complete Guide to Hiring and Firing Government Employees

Author: Stewart Liff
Pub Date: December 2009
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814414507
Page Count: 240
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814414514

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THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN to address two of the most important issues

that government managers will ever have to face: how to hire and fire a government

employee. Neither of these is easy, but in all probability, you will

need to do both in order to succeed.

Most likely, you will hire far more employees than you will fire—if not,

something is definitely wrong. After all, if you spend most of your time correcting

bad hiring decisions, what does that say about your hiring process?

Moreover, you will find yourself devoting far too much of your precious

time looking for ways to get rid of bad employees instead of performing your

day-to-day job responsibilities.

In the course of a long career, you may hire dozens if not hundreds of

people, and make no mistake about it, the quality of the people you hire will

go a long way toward determining how successful you are as a manager.

Unfortunately, in my experience, government managers often spend an inordinate

amount of time bringing in large groups of new hires without devoting

enough time to strategizing how to bring in the best possible group of new

employees. As a result, these managers find themselves hiring a mix of candidates,

many of whom prove to be less than optimal selections. Eventually, the

managers wind up scrambling to try and deal with the problems inherent in

a weak workforce. These problems range from a wide variety of training

challenges to employee relations issues to performance problems, many of

which could have been avoided had managers taken more time to plan properly

and had they possessed the skills needed to hire an excellent group of

new employees in the first place.

That is not to say that it is easy to hire top-notch government employ-

ees. It most certainly is not. The government’s laws, rules, regulations, and

procedures for hiring, regardless of whether it’s at the federal, state, or local

levels, are for the most part complex, convoluted, time-consuming, and in

many cases highly frustrating—to both government managers and the people

trying to get jobs with the government. In addition, the requirements of

factoring in veterans’ preference, the legitimate concerns about equal

employment opportunities (EEO) for all, competition from the private sector

(which can hire more quickly and doesn’t have the same procedures as

the government), centralized pressure to hire quickly when recruitment

authority is granted, unanticipated budget crunches, rigid pay systems, hiring

freezes, and others all make the hiring process challenging for government


According to the United States Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB),

which serves as an independent, bipartisan guardian of the merit systems

under which federal employees work, “There are barriers to recruiting a high

quality workforce. . . . First-line supervisors and other managers still indicate

that they have problems recruiting highly qualified applicants. These problems

may be due to insufficient recruitment strategies or incentives, the

slowness of the hiring process, or the use of inadequate measuring instruments,

and agencies should examine them further.”1

That being said, government managers can take many steps to enable

themselves to hire excellent employees, and that is part of the basis for this

book. Having been a government employee for more than 32 years, and a

government manager and leader for 28 years, I know firsthand what it is like

to try and hire employees within the constraints that exist.Moreover, during

nearly my entire career, I have hired people while working in high-cost areas

such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., which only made

the challenge even greater.

The first half of this book is devoted to showing readers how to hire

excellent government employees in a logical, integrated, and comprehensive

fashion. It is intended to be a road map for hiring quality people within a

government personnel system, regardless of the level of government. It is

based on both my experiences as a government human resources management

(HRM) expert and my many years as a government line manager and

senior executive.

This book is not meant to provide a “one-design-fits-all” approach to

recruitment. Rather, it offers a series of philosophies, strategies, and recruitment

tactics based on a deep understanding of the government’s HRM systems

and many years of working in the real world of government staffing

and line management that can then be customized to a specific, local situation.

The book is also designed to help you look at your entire process, ranging

from the time before vacancies even exist to the moment you begin your

recruitment process through rating and ranking candidates and up to the

final selection process and its aftermath. I am confident that if you adopt this

holistic approach, it will greatly aid you in building a first-class government

workforce—and preclude you from having to deal with too many poor-quality

employees down the road.

While building your workforce, it is quite likely that you are going to

find that one or more of your employees are simply not working out. They

may be holdovers from the past who have never been good employees and

have not been dealt with, they may be good employees whose performance

has suffered due to personal problems or other reasons, or they may be

recent hires who turned out to be poor selections despite your best efforts.

Regardless of the reason, most organizations, including high-performing

ones, have some poor performers. The difference is that the best organizations

deal with these employees, and the more marginal ones do not. This seems

to be especially true for government, given its myriad rules and culture,

wherein far too many problem employees are allowed to coast through their


From my perspective, this happens because many, if not most, government

managers have bought into the perception that you can’t fire a bad

employee. They believe that it is too difficult, too time-consuming, and too

much work so they often give up before they even get started. Personal experience,

or the lessons they have learned from others, has taught managers

that there is no point in trying to remove a bad apple because in the end they

will not prevail. So why go through all of the pain and suffering that the government’s

personnel system will impose on them?

The problem with this type of thinking is that it perpetuates the widespread

belief that you can’t fire a bad government employee. Once the public

believes this myth, it undermines their faith in government. Once your

employees believe this, it ruins their morale and makes them conclude that

they are working for a less-than-stellar organization that is not interested in

high performance. When your problem employees see that management is

not prepared to deal with them, they will be emboldened to slack off even

more and will try to influence marginal employees to take the same

approach. In short, you will be encouraging a cancer to metastasize in your

organization at a rapid rate.

This does not have to happen in government, nor should it. However, it

has been happening for decades because government leaders have done a relatively

poor job of building accountability into its personnel systems; leaders

have not taught their subordinate supervisors why it is so important to

deal with problem employees up front; and supervisors do not really know

how to go about actually dealing with a poor employee.

According to the MSPB, “In many Federal organizations, there is a culture

that sanctions not dealing effectively with problem employees. This

must be changed for the Government to effectively hold employees accountable

for their performance.”2

Make no mistake about it, changing the culture is not an easy thing to

do. The system is definitely complex and requires a high degree of technical

knowledge, which most supervisors do not possess.Moreover, going through

the process is not a pleasant experience because you will likely experience

pushback from the affected employee(s), which may very well entail one or

more complaints being filed against you. You may also get second-guessed or

overturned by upper management at some point in the process, which will

make your experience even more frustrating.

Herein lies the problem: How do we change the way that government

operates so that its management officials recognize that it is in their best

interest to deal with their problem employees? According to an MSPB report,

. . . despite the claims of some supervisors to the contrary, we

believe that the current system can provide the means to

deal with problem employees. This does not imply that

changes to the current system should not be considered; it

only implies that managers should not wait for systemic

adjustments before they take appropriate action in this area.

The current system does not, of course, make the process of

dealing with problem employees a particularly pleasant experience.

Nor does the system work well unless management

creates an organizational climate that makes it clear to all

employees that poor performance or misconduct will not be


I fully agree with that conclusion, which, by the way, was reached about

10 years ago. Since the time that MSPB report was issued, there have been no

significant changes to the system. The key continues to be to change the

mind-set of government managers by showing them the way and providing

them with the skills necessary to deal with poor employees, which includes

firing employees when necessary.

That is the purpose of the second part of this book: to teach readers how

to successfully terminate poor employees within the system that currently

exists.When appropriate, it should be and can be done.

Before I continue, let me be clear about one thing: You should fire a government

employee only as a last resort and only when it is the right thing to

do. Never fire someone because it is expedient or because you are trying to

show that you are a “tough guy.” Only take this step when it is appropriate

and will promote the efficiency of the government. Remember, your organization

has already invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and

money in the employee, so you should fire the person only when there is no

other reasonable alternative.

Please note that I do not consider a reasonable alternative to be moving

a problem employee from one team to another without addressing the root

cause. Otherwise you are merely perpetuating the problem, creating

headaches for the employee’s new supervisor, and sending a message to the

rest of the workforce that you are not serious about dealing with difficult


Also, I do not consider giving a well-known problem employee a “slap

on the wrist” because that is not going to change his behavior either. As you

will learn later on in this book, in order to successfully deal with a true problem

employee, as opposed to a good employee whose conduct or performance

problem is merely an aberration, you need to let the employee know

that if he doesn’t change his performance or behavior, you are prepared to

remove him. That is the only way to let the employee know you are serious.

After all, when you are dealing with someone who is truly a problem (i.e.,

someone who is in the bottom 10 percent of your workforce), the only successful

outcomes are to either change the person or change the person. The

one outcome that is not acceptable is maintaining the status quo, wherein

the employee continues to behave and act in an unacceptable manner. That

must change; otherwise, the employee will surely pollute your workplace and

other employees will conclude that management is sanctioning the employee’s

actions and that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

If there are no reasonable alternatives to firing the employee, and progressive

discipline has not worked (more about that topic in Section 2: How

to Fire a Government Employee), then by all means go forward and take

action to remove the employee. This book will show you how to fire an

employee in a fair, logical, and defensible manner. It will provide you with

tips on how to go about it, including how to conduct an investigation, how

to document your actions, how to write charges, how to put together an evidence

file, how and when to settle a case, and, if not settlement, how to prevail

before a third party. It will also demystify the process for you, so you will

know what you are getting into, what the potential pitfalls are (and how to

avoid them), and what to expect along the way.

Search the full text of this book


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