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Defense Department revamps policy for civilian layoffs, but says no cuts are imminent

January 26, 2017 (Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Benari Poulten/Army)
The Defense Department will no longer prioritize its civilian employees' seniority, prior military service or longevity when evaluating which personnel to lay off as part of future workforce reductions, instead relying primarily on documented job performance.

The new policy, announced in a memorandum to be distributed Thursday, does not foreshadow impending personnel cuts nor is it connected to the government-wide hiring freeze directed by President Donald Trump earlier this week, a senior Defense Department official said. The 90-day freeze, which does apply to DoD's 750,000-person civilian workforce, albeit with certain caveats, is meant to buy time for the new White House to build a long-term strategy for reducing government payrolls.

Rather, these new procedures, which quietly took effect Jan. 19, will bring the Defense Department into compliance with legislation advanced, advocated and approved by Congress in late 2015, the defense official said.

"It's not signaling that any RIF is imminent," the official added, using an acronym that means reduction in force. "Though if [layoffs] become necessary, we want to have the policies that allow us to keep our highest performing employees. ... But I'm not aware of any RIFs that are imminent in the next 30 [days] to 'x' time period."

The senior official spoke to Military Times and select other media on the condition of anonymity, doing so to candidly address questions about the new policy.  

The new policy makes the Defense Department unique within the federal government in that it requires employees' job performance to override all other factors when supervisors must decide how to reduce headcount. Such criteria is used routinely by many private sector employers, however. The defense official declined to speculate as to why members of Congress felt DoD civil servants, who account for more than 30 percent of the federal workforce, should be held to different standards than their peers. 

However, the official noted that this new policy coincides with implementation of a new employee appraisal system designed to ensure performance standards are being applied and reviewed consistently.

It's not immediately clear when Defense Department civil servants last experienced significant layoffs. The Pentagon was unable to readily provide that data. 

How the new system works

Reductions in force are "always the last thing the department wants to do," the defense official said. Typically, officials look first to less drastic measures, such as buyouts or job retraining.

But when layoffs are necessary, supervisors create employee retention registers to determine who gets let go. Moving forward, such decisions will be based on periods of assessed job performance, and employees will fall into one of two categories: those with a year or more of assessed time, and those with less than one year.

Next, they'll rank employees based on the following criteria, and in this specific order:

Performance rating. "Everyone gets a rating for their performance," the official said. "What we'll look at is your two most recent ratings that were conducted over a four-year period. That's how your rating of record is determined. Those last two, the average of them." It will be a whole number that's rounded up or down accordingly. 

Tenure. The government categorizes employees into three tenure groups. Those in Group 3 comprise temporary workers. During layoffs, "they are always released before employees who are on a competitive, permanent appointment," the official said. Group 2, called "career conditional," includes those with less than three years of service. They would be the next in line to be laid off. Group 1 trumps the others. 

Average performance rating score. "We recognize tenure as important," the official said, "... but we want to be able to make meaningful distinctions between people who are in tenure groups one and two." So supervisors will look more closely at the elements comprising an employee's rating of record. "For me," the official said, "I may be rated in my performance as supervisor, how I communicate and how I contribute to the mission." Each category comes with a score whose average is not rounded.

Veterans preference. This is the next tie breaker. Prior-military civil servants with a 30 percent disability rating or greater are given top preference followed by other military veterans. Non vets receive no preference. 

Service computation date. This is calculated based on the date an employee enters government service, and can be adjusted for prior military service.

Formerly, tenure, then veterans preference and length of service all superseded job performance. That system is still used nearly everywhere else throughout the federal government.
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