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Federal Misconduct

​Dealing with employee misconduct is never a pleasant task for any manager, including security managers. If the workplace happens to be part of the U.S. federal government, that task can be even trickier.

U.S. regulations specify the formal legal process that most federal agencies must follow when taking disciplinary action against employees for acts of misconduct. There are also regulations on the built-in procedural rights that many federal employees are entitled to when faced with these actions. Depending on the nature of misconduct, however, a federal agency sometimes may use alternative disciplinary approaches, instead of the formal legal process.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was recently asked to examine how federal agencies address employee misconduct. It found that, in 2016, federal agencies formally disciplined an estimated 17,000 employees for misconduct, or less than 1 percent of the federal workforce. Based on Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data, federal agencies made 10,249 suspensions, 7,411 removals, and 114 demotions for misconduct.

As part of its report, Federal Employee Misconduct: Actions Needed to Ensure Agencies Have Tools to Effectively Address Misconduct, GAO asked management experts for promising practices based on lessons learned from real workplace situations that federal agencies could use to respond to employee misconduct. These recommended best practices included:

  • Senior agency officials should strive to set positive conduct examples, because the "tone at the top" is influential in employee misconduct.
  • Additional training would help supervisors identify and deal with misconduct, so agencies should sponsor ongoing training for managers. Also, supervisors should be held accountable for identifying misconduct and responding to it in a timely manner.
  • Internal collaboration is key to effectively addressing misconduct. Effective lines of communication and collaboration between human resources staff, line-level management, and legal counsel must be maintained.
  • Managers should actively engage employees and set clear rules and expectations regarding employee conduct, including specifics on applicable standards of conduct.

These best practices, however, are not being followed in some agencies. Some federal managers are not adequately addressing misconduct because they are unfamiliar with the disciplinary process, have insufficient training, or do not receive proper support from their human resources offices, the report found.

In its report, the GAO recommended that OPM better leverage these best practices to help agencies address misconduct and improve its guidance on training supervisors to address misconduct. OPM concurred with the recommendations.