While it has been hard to actually fire government employees, it is not impossible. New legislation over the years has made it more feasible. Just ask employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) if it’s possible to be fired – the VA recently announced it had dropped more than 500 employees in just 5 months, a figure that would be pretty remarkable in or outside of government. While continuity of operations and fighting favoritism have long been lauded as the primary reason for the inability to fire government employees, at some point, those arguments no longer seem reasonable – for the government or its employees.
Government employees under investigation might get put on administrative leave until the situation is resolved. Unions and other checks can slow or deter the process. But make no mistake – it is quite possible to derail your career if you commit any of these mistakes.
1. Poor Performance
While poor performance might put you out on the street in the public sector, many government employees have been able to hang on despite performance issues. The greater the impact of the employee’s performance and the more thorough the documentation on the situation, the more likelihood there will be a termination. Sometimes, poor performers have had billet adjustments to lessen their impact, but ultimately, this just hurts everyone who has to work with the employee.
2. Questionable moral judgement and visiting questionable websites.
This should be a no-brainer, as it will get you fired in many other places, as well. When you are on a government-owned computer or smartphone, you should understand that Uncle Sam is always watching. Government systems must be used properly.
3. Accepting bribes.
I wonder if the Navy officers on the USS Blue Ridge look back and realize the bribes from Singapore-based contractor Leonard Glenn Francis were not worth it. Bribes may start small, but it is critical to the security of our nation that employees and contractors have zero tolerance for bribery of any kind. This is one of those actions that not only get you fired, but also save you a cool, hard seat in prison.
4. Not reporting conflicts of interest.
Many federal employees need to fill out OGE form 450s (Confidential Financial Disclosure Form). Not properly filling this out or falsifying information can result in loss of certain duties that may end up in the employee needing to find other employment.
Sometimes, espionage is with the intent to harm the United States. At other times, spies spout off some altruistic sense of sharing information for the greater good, or think their actions constitute whistleblowing. The key is to never be careless with classified information – especially if your job requires you to talk to reporters or share information with defense magazines. Espionage or sharing classified information is a sure way to lose your job, as well as land you in prison.
6. Padding a job for when you retire.
If you have high hopes of working for a contractor after your federal employee stint, understand that questions will arise if you award a contract and then go work for the contractor. Darleen Druyun may not have been fired from the federal government, but she was prosecuted by them. The reality is that you have an important responsibility as a federal employee – to look out for the best interests of the country and its taxpayers. It gets tiring to be underpaid and underappreciated as a federal employee, so it can be tempting to want to use your position of power to create a better life for yourself.
7. Credit Card Abuse.
Even though employees are required to use a government credit card and may not get paid for several weeks after returning from TDY, employees are still required to pay the full amount when due. Not doing so can result in loss of credit card use. If inability to travel impacts your current job responsibilities, it could mean you need to find a new job. If you need to, plan your personal budget to make up for the slow payment process.
8. Engaging in political activity while on duty.
According to the Department of Defense’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure, “Although federal employees are entitled to support the political candidates of their choice, the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty.” So this means that you cannot send out emails, pass out campaign stickers, wear campaign buttons to work, fundraise in federal buildings, or even run for an office while you are a federal employee. You cannot try to encourage your subordinates or co-workers to vote for a particular candidate, or you will find yourself in violation of the Hatch Act. “Disciplinary action for violations of the Hatch Act range from 30-day suspension without pay to termination from federal employment.”
9. Abusing your position.
Perhaps some former government employees thought that their position gave them some power. In reality, anytime your actions look like a misuse of power, it can put you under investigation and at risk of termination. If you get pulled over, do not try to give your federal employee credentials in hopes of getting out of a ticket. Do not ask your employees to find information or write papers for the kids in your life, and do not ask contractors to conduct work that does not fall under the contract. There are rules in place for a reason, and abuse of power will find you fired or in early retirement.
10. Gift violations.
The goal of the law is to avoid the appearance of federal employees accepting gifts. To ensure bribery isn’t an issue, the federal government has put checks in place to protect employees. It is important that you understand how thorough the checks are when it comes to personal gifts – either from employees (especially subordinates) or people you do business with. The Office of Government Ethics prohibits federal employees from soliciting gifts or accepting gifts, unless the “unsolicited gift” has an aggregate market value of $20 or less per source per occasion,” and provided that the value of gifts accepted under the “$20 rule” from a single source do not amount to more than $50 in a given calendar year. If you’re going to lunch with a contractor, it is wise that you pay for your own meal. Think about holidays, office parties (retirements, promotions, birthdays, etc), kind gestures, or even company samples, and make sure you are not in violation of the law. The good news is that if you do not seek to cover it up, but instead make the situation right by repaying what was provided to you, repercussions are reduced or removed. Gift violations have even gotten the best of federal employees with a long twenty years with the government, so it is best to pay attention to the rules.
It’s also important to remember that some of these actions will not only get you fired, but could get you thrown in prison. It is always good to be aware of your position as a federal employee, and treat it with respect. Just scrolling through the Department of Defense’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure will give you many examples for why we have rules in place. As you read through dozens of examples of how others fell short, you’ll see how easy is to put your job at-risk.