Federal managers are aware of the phrase “probationary period,” and most have dealt with employees who are in it while under the manager’s supervision. Research conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) have shown repeatedly, however, that while managers know what a probationary period is, they more often than not don’t use it for its intended purpose: to assess the work performance of new employees and to remove nonperforming probationary employees before they obtain job protection rights under Title V that make it more cumbersome for managers to remove poor performers or employees who fail to fully conform to workplace conduct rules.
Some of the reasons for managers’ reluctance are due to internal politics, e.g., a manager may feel that an action to terminate a probationary employee will not be supported by upper management. Others say it is better to have a mediocre performer than no one since, in these days of dwindling resources, the manager risks not being allowed to replace the poor performer. Some managers also say they fear the prospect of an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint resulting from a removal action.
I tell my managerial clients that none of these reasons are significant enough to not take advantage of the probationary period. After all, if the employee is performing unsatisfactorily or demonstrating a bad attitude or having attendance issues when he or she knows they are, in essence, an at-will employee, then how poorly will they perform when they obtain further rights and protections from removal? According to the MSPB’s research, if that employee was not so great during his probationary period, it is virtually guaranteed that he is not going to improve but will likely remain in government service for some time. Why would a manager do that to himself and to the workforce?
There is one real issue that has caused managers to use caution and to not remove problem employees during the probationary period: insufficient time for proper evaluation. Earlier this year, federal employee management associations urged members of Congress to consider legislative reforms relating to the probationary period that covers most federal employees.
Some of you work in agencies where your employees have to use highly specialized, technical skills to carry out their job duties. In those agencies, new employees often spend months in formal training and on-the-job instructions. For example, new air traffic controllers spend months in formal training classes and then do on-the-job training; Social Security claims representatives can take several years to become proficient at their specialized duties; and, tax collection agents’ class room and on-the-job training exceed the time of their probationary period. If Congress agrees that managers don’t currently have sufficient time and tools to properly assess probationary employees before the period is up, they might extend the probationary period. For those of you who don’t have probationary employees in long on the job training, use the probationary period wisely. Route out those employees clearly not cut out to permanently join the federal workforce. Failing to do so, simply delays having to deal with the employee’s performance, conduct or attendance issues when he or she has many more job rights.