Cover: An Assessment of Two-Year Probationary Period Usage Within the Defense Civilian Workforce

An Assessment of Two-Year Probationary Period Usage Within the Defense Civilian Workforce

A Report Prepared for the U.S. Department of Defense in Compliance with Section 1102 of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act

Published Jul 19, 2023

by Laura Werber, Jonas Kempf, Molly F. McIntosh, Brian Phillips, Samantha Cherney, Daniel Kim

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Research Questions

  1. What are the demographics of those covered by the two-year probationary period during the timeframe of interest?
  2. What patterns were related the use of probationary period terminations overall, and in the second year in particular?
  3. What areas of concerns were noted about the use of probationary period terminations?
  4. What promising practices emerged related to the use of probationary period terminations?

Poor employee performance and employee misconduct are important workforce management issues for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to address given both their prevalence and potential impact on productivity. In light of the resources required to remove an individual with full employment rights from civil service, the probationary period for someone with a new civil service appointment is regarded as both the final step in the hiring process and an important tool for supervisors to address poor performance and misconduct.

This report summarizes the results of a congressionally mandated independent review of DoD's use of the two-year probationary period for new appointments to the Senior Executive Service (SES) and competitive service, covering the required report elements listed in Section 1102 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020. The findings address the composition of the workforce on probation and those terminated during their probationary periods; patterns in probationary period terminations and disciplinary actions; concerns and promising practices related to the probationary period; and the perceived impact of an extended probationary period on recruiting and retention. The report also includes recommendations intended to improve how DoD uses the probationary period and assesses its impact. This research should be of interest to congressional representatives and staff, DoD personnel who conduct civilian personnel management and oversight, and the broader community interested in federal civilian personnel management.

Key Findings

Covered personnel tended to be male, white, non-Hispanic, without a reported disability, and in bargaining units

  • The covered workforce consisted of 164,694 personnel with a new competitive service appointment and 275 personnel with a new SES appointment between November 26, 2015, and December 31, 2018.
  • Two percent (3,492) of those personnel were terminated during their probation.

Many factors were correlated with the probability of probationary period termination

  • Black probationers, those with a disability, and those in positions covered by bargaining units were more likely to be terminated than White probationers, those without a disability, and those not in such positions, respectively.
  • Probationers less likely to be terminated included women, veterans, and personnel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations.
  • Terminated probationers with at least some college and those in non-STEM mission critical occupations were among those more likely to be terminated in the second year of probation.

There was no evidence of supervisor abuse of discretion in probationary period terminations, but other concerns emerged

  • Supervisors did not consistently communicate with probationers about performance or conduct issues before initiating a termination.
  • Other concerns were process-oriented, pertaining to probation length computations, supervisor notification of probation end dates, and variation in documentation provided to terminated probationers.

Some promising practices are candidates for broader DoD use

  • They include automated or HR-initiated notifications to supervisors about upcoming probation end dates, documentation of events during a probationer's tenure, a termination checklist for supervisors, and an agency-based process for a terminated probationer to request review.

Recommendations

  • DoD leadership should develop, communicate, and implement plans to investigate higher termination rates for protected classes (i.e., personnel legally protected from discrimination) and to address any situations in which it finds that a termination did not seem to be for a valid reason.
  • DoD staff should improve performance ratings recordkeeping by ensuring that performance ratings are part of all civilian personnel employment records.
  • DoD staff should increase the accuracy of probationary period end date computations.
  • DoD staff should make greater use of push notifications to remind supervisors of probationary period end dates to improve their awareness.
  • DoD should support additional research to understand the benefits and shortcomings of a longer probationary period.
  • DoD leadership should consider broader application of termination-related promising practices already in use within the department.
  • DoD should look to the private sector for additional promising practices related to addressing poor employee performance, including ways to ensure terminations are for appropriate reasons.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and conducted within the Personnel, Readiness, and Health Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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