The R Word

Most people do not like to think or talk about RIF and they certainly do not want to do a RIF. But – think and talk about it we must. And in some agencies, leaders may have to more than that.

Most people would rather talk about the “A word”  – attrition. For many years that has been the preferred way to shrink the workforce. Attrition is less harsh, it does not force people out of their jobs, and presents fewer opportunities for favoritism or other bad things. So why would we ever consider RIF when we have the allegedly painless magic of attrition? There are at least three reasons.

  1. Attrition is random. It does not always happen where you need it. If we have an organization where we want to reduce the number of people in position A, but keep all that we have in position B, we have to pray that the people who leave are in position A. If not, we may find ourselves being unable to hire for the jobs we need and still having too many people in the positions we do not need. Multiply that by a few dozen types of jobs and it is easy to see how an agency could get itself into a bind.
  2. Prolonged pain. Attrition takes a downsizing process and drags it out for months or even years. The organization is constantly under stress, leaders may not see the need for rapid rethinking of processes and structures, and the workforce is asked to do more with less until they break.  It is not good the agency, its mission, or its workforce.
  3. Timing. This one is most important for our situation today. Attrition depends on people leaving. If they are leaving in large numbers (and from the right jobs), attrition can work well. But most agencies do not have high turnover rates. If an agency has a turnover rate of 5% and is told to take a 10% cut (the size of the reductions we are hearing about in the President’s budget plan) on October 1st, they have a problem. Turnover takes time, and in that agency with 5% turnover, it would take 2 years of hiring no one to meet the goal. That is 2 years too late. Agencies can increase turnover by offering buyouts and early retirement, but that takes time, and they either need more money to pay for the buyouts or they have to do them early in the fiscal year. Attrition is great for small reductions that do not have a budget deadline. For big reductions, the timing simply does not work.

So – if attrition can be bad, why not just go ahead and do a RIF right away? What could go wrong? In a word, everything. Here are just a few examples:

RIFs are disruptive. They follow a byzantine set of rules and scare the living daylights out of people. They sometimes scare away the best and most marketable members of the workforce, leaving the agency with the folks who cannot get a job elsewhere. They take time, and during that time the workforce may be consumed with talk of the RIF, rumors, suspicion, and fear. You can imagine what that does to morale and productivity.

Few federal agencies are prepared to run a RIF. My experience running too many large and small RIFs taught me many things, chief among them being that informed, thoughtful and thorough preparation is absolutely essential. There are so many ways that RIFs can blow up on agencies that failure to prepare almost guarantees a RIF will be a mess. And that’s just running the RIF itself. Absent the right preparation, the aftermath of the RIF will also be a mess, with RIF actions overturned on appeal and projected savings not materializing for years.

A clean RIF starts with clean records – something few agencies have. Most agencies have not looked at things like RIF competitive levels for many years. They have moved from very specific job descriptions to generic versions without considering what that will do to them in a RIF (hint – it isn’t good). They have not verified service computation dates. And they do not have processes in place to do those things.

Who knows how to run a RIF? RIF is a logical process, but most federal HR folks have never had to run a RIF. From one perspective that is great – they have avoided laying off their employees. From another perspective it is a big problem. If the first RIF you run affects a large portion of the workforce, and budget pressures mean it has to be right the first time, you are in trouble before you start.

The workforce does not understand the RIF rules. Why should they? The federal government has separated only a few hundred employees via RIF in recent years. Federal employees had no reason to try to learn how RIFs work. Now that RIFs are far more likely, that lack of knowledge is going to generate fear and stress.

The finances of RIF are another problem that most people have not thought about. RIF is expensive and it may not generate immediate savings. That means an agency may have to overshoot its reduction target to keep from busting the budget. Buyouts are a great tool that have proven their effectiveness. In fact, Congress should give every federal agency the increased ($40K) buyout cap that Defense got in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. But – buyouts cost up to $25K per employee. Severance pay is another RIF cost. An employee who is separated by RIF and who is not eligible to retire immediately gets severance pay. Severance can go as high as 52 weeks of pay. Another cost is lump sum annual leave. An employee who is separated or leaves voluntarily gets paid for accrued annual leave. That can easily add  10% of annual salary. So – if you separate a GS-12 who makes $90K per year and give that person 6 months of severance pay and their annual leave, that would cost $54K. If you do not make the RIF effective until mid-year, there is no dollar saving at all that year.

Lump sum leave, buyouts and severance pay do not take into account the biggest cost of RIF – grade and pay retention. Let’s say you abolish a GS-12 position where the employee makes that same $90K per year. The employee has enough seniority to bump or retreat into a GS-9 job. The GS-9 has enough seniority to bump or retreat to a GS-5. Both employees have been in the job long enough to qualify for grade retention. That means for the next 2 years, the former GS-12 and GS-9 will not lose a penny. The person who goes out the door is a GS-5 making $40K per year.  The job you abolished with the intent of saving $90K per year produces only $40K of savings. Once you add in the cost of severance pay and leave payout for the GS-5, the first year savings may drop to only $20K. Once the grade retention expires, the employees will receive pay retention. In most cases, they will never see an actual reduction in pay. They will simply get half of annual pay increases until their pay catches up. That will take years.

It is easy to see why a clean RIF is hard to come by. It can be done well, and it can be done in a way that does save money, but it takes time, careful analysis and planning, and a long-range view of consequences. I ran a RIF that affected more than 1500 people and we had no reversals on appeals, arbitrations or complaints. That took a lot of work and it was painful. Jump into it without the right preparation, and the consequences will be ugly.

The truth is that there is no painless way to dramatically shrink an organization. Agencies faced with that daunting task will need to make decisions that best serve the mission, while doing everything they reasonably can do to prepare and to look out for the interests of the workforce. It is not going to be easy, painless or without risk, but it can be done.

 

You’re Fired! and Other Federal Management Fantasies

imageWith Agency Heads, members of Congress, pundits and others continuing to press the issue of making it easier to fire Federal workers (and thinking it will actually make a difference), I decided to rerun a post from last year. Nothing has changed and these proposals are not going to produce the kinds of benefits most people expect from them.

The recent news about the Department of Veterans Affairs has generated a lot of talk about performance – lack of it, failure to deal with problems, rating inflation, and so on. During a June 20th hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA revealed that none of its Senior Executives had gotten a rating below fully successful in the past 4 years. While that may seem shocking, the VA is not that out of the ordinary. Sub-par ratings for SES members are not common and firing them is even less common. Firing anyone in a management job is rare. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a selection process that weeds out unqualified applicants long before they could be selected and a lack of will to deal with problem employees.

The raw numbers of removals for employees below the SES level are higher, but overall there are not large numbers of supervisors and managers who get less than fully successful ratings.

The overall number of permanent Federal employees who have been fired in recent years is not large. A recent article in Federal Times cited numbers of 11,564 in FY 2009, 11,733 in FY 2010, 10,373 in FY 2011, 9,980 in FY 2012 and 9,513 in FY 2013. That ranges from a high of 0.57% of Federal employees fired in 2009 to a low of 0.46% in FY 2013. Those numbers may actually be a bit higher than true number of people fired for poor performance or misconduct, because they include people who were terminated because their appointments expired and for other reasons.

The Federal Times article points out the higher numbers of people fired from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA is exempt from most Federal employment laws as a result of authority it has in Section 111(d) of the aviation and Transportation Security Act) and the higher numbers of people at lower grades (particularly GS-5) who are fired. The high number of GS-5s is not surprising. More people enter Federal service at the GS-5 level than any other grade and, as new employees, they are much more likely to be let go. GS-5s also represent the largest number of resignations of any grade.

Federal Employee Terminations and Removals FY2009 – FY 2013

The raw number of SES terminations and removals is very low:

Senior Executive Service Removals and Terminations FY 2009 – FY 2013

Federal Times noted that lower graded employees are fired at a much higher rate than higher grades. What is not often mentioned is that SES members are fired at the same or higher rate than GS-14s and GS-15s. In fact, the FY 2012 SES firing rate was almost twice that of GS-15s and one-third more than the rate of GS-14s. In 2012, 7 of 7,815 SES (.09%) were fired for performance or misconduct, while 28 of 59,216 GS-15s (.05%) and 86 of 119,507 GS-14s (.07%) were fired.

Firing rates for higher grades are most likely lower because those employees have been screened repeatedly as they have moved up through the grades. Another factor may be the familiarity that more senior people have with one another. Firing anyone is hard, but it is easier to fire someone you don’t know as well. Firing the people you work most closely with every day is much harder.

All these numbers about firing lead to the question – why aren’t more people being fired if we want to make government better? A June 24 Government Executive article on a a House/Senate conference committee was headlined “VA Conferees Agree on One Thing: Fire More Bureaucrats.” Wouldn’t it be better if we give managers the ability to fire people much more easily so they can clear out the deadwood? Wouldn’t that lead to a general housecleaning that would make government far more effective? Shouldn’t government fire people at a rate similar to the private sector?

In a word, no.

The simple idea that it should be easier to fire people sounds good in theory. If we let good managers make good management decisions about letting poor performers go they will get rid of the poor performers. Like many simple ideas, that one is too simple. The real world is a bit more complex. Here are just a few of those complexities:

  • The simple view assumes managers will manage. This post started with the story about every SES member in the Department of Veterans Affairs getting a fully satisfactory or better rating. The numbers are not a lot better in other agencies. Most managers who talk about how hard it is to fire people have never tried to fire anyone. Keep in mind that MSPB’s 2005 report, The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity, MSPB reports that 1.6% of competitive service employees are removed from their jobs during their probationary period. Those are employees who can be fired easily and have little avenue of appeal. Firing them doesn’t require a lot of documentation or time. Firing probationary employees is as simple as it gets, yet only 1.6% of them are fired every year. Why should we believe a quick and easy process for firing everyone else would have different results?
  • The simple view assumes Federal employees who cannot perform are the reason for many of government’s problems. In that scenario, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of employees who contribute nothing and wiping out large numbers of them will make government better. That view doesn’t assign the blame for government’s biggest problems to the people and cultures that are actually responsible for them. Federal employees do not cause duplication of services across agencies. They don’t cause money to be appropriated for wasteful projects. They do not cause most of the problems of the federal government. For the most part, the ability of anyone other than the most senior employees to dramatically change anything is next to non-existent. By shifting the focus to them, we lose focus on the bigger systemic problems our government faces and guarantee we will never deal with the underlying causes. Are there poor performers in government? Yes. Is the number massive? No. Will rolling a few heads distract attention from the bigger problems? Absolutely.
  • The simple view also assumes those managers who do have the backbone to deal with poor performers will deal only with poor performers and not the people they do not like for personal or political reasons. The federal civil service was designed to protect government workers and the American people from a government spoils system and the toxic results it produced in the past. The great champion of the civil service, President Theodore Roosevelt, said “The spoils-monger and spoils-seeker invariably breed the bribe-taker and bribes-giver, the embezzler of public funds and the corrupter of voters.” President Roosevelt was right. “Reforms” that would lead us back to a spoils system would do far more damage to the interests of the American people than any harm that can be done by a ten or twenty or thirty thousand people who do not perform.
  • The simple view assumes performance is an individual accomplishment. I have worked 33 years in government and 6 years in the private sector. During all of that time I have seen very few accomplishments that are the result of just one person’s actions. Virtually all good results come from teams of people working together.  Most bad results are failures of a team or an organization. They fail to deal with systemic problems. They fail to provide training for their employees. They fail to provide the technology that would enable success. They fail to create a culture that gets good results. Yet, when they have a failure, they always seem to default to finding someone to blame so they do not have to accept the fact that they might be part of the problem too.

We seem to have reached a point where the solution to a problem is to hunt down the offending party and say “You’re fired!” Maybe it makes us feel better to think we made someone pay for their failure. While we would be better off if we dealt effectively with poor performance, the truth is that government is so complex, cultural norms in agencies are so powerful, and our political process is so broken, that there is rarely a single person or even a small group of people who are truly responsible. If we want to make government better, we need to deal with cultural issues that drive the kind of problems we have seen at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We need to deal with the political dysfunction that can make Congressional oversight more of a sideshow than the powerful tool it was designed to be. We need to deal with the lack of training for Federal managers that would help equip them to deal with problem employees and problem organizations. We need to deal with the unresolved questions of the scope and reach of government. None of those are easy. None are likely to be completed within a daily news cycle, and none of them give someone the satisfaction of finding someone to blame and firing that person. But – if we want to make our government better, they are what we have to do.