Proving Uncle Sam Actually Fires Employees?

May 19, 2015

If I hadn’t already published an April Fool’s Day post, I might nominate this one. A Washington Post story has the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) trying to rebut a number of misconceptions about federal government employment practices, most notably the belief that it’s impossible to fire a federal employee. Their effort is a great example of how misleading the raw numbers can be, and how the misuse or simply the absence of metrics can rob the raw numbers of meaning and context.

The MSPB states that 77,000 federal employees “were discharged as a result of performance and/or conduct issues” (i.e., “for cause” – not layoffs, furloughs, or voluntary resignations). That seems like an impressive raw number, until we consider a couple of other raw numbers:

  • The 77,000 terminations occurred over 15 years, from fiscal 2000 through fiscal 2014.
  • The base of full-time, permanent employees as of September 2014 was 1,847,000.

This is where our friend, the trusty ratio, really comes in handy. We can now see that:

  • Terminations for cause average about 5,100 per year.
  • Assuming federal headcount has been fairly stable, the for-cause termination rate was about 0.28% per year, or 1 in 360 employees.

Statistics on for-cause terminations are hard to come by, but a Bureau of Labor Statistics publication suggests that the rate in the private sector might be in the 4%-6% range. That would be roughly consistent with the following assumptions: (a) average employee tenure is 5 years, for a 20% total turnover rate, and (b) 1 in every 4 terminations is involuntary. To me, that’s close enough for government work, as they say. In other words, the for-cause termination rate (4%-6%) is 15 to 20 times higher in the private sector than in the federal government (0.28%).

So a federal employee is more likely to be terminated for performance or misconduct than to be eaten by a shark or hit by a meteorite. I think. But if historical averages are any indication, a federal employee is less likely to be fired than the Chicago Cubs are to win the World Series.

It may not be impossible to fire a federal employee, but it’s pretty darn rare. We can argue about the goodness or the badness of that truth, but cloaking it in numbers with many digits doesn’t alter the reality.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable.  I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples.  Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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