Agencies may promote or reassign career or career-conditional employees under a variety of circumstances. They also may make time-limited promotions of up to five years to fill temporary positions, accomplish project work, fill positions temporarily pending reorganization or to meet other temporary needs. However, most promotions are made through one of two promotion channels—merit promotion plans and career ladder promotion plans.

Generally, general schedule employees who are promoted to a higher grade must receive a pay increase of at least two steps of the former grade. Wage grade employees who are promoted to a higher grade must have their pay set at a rate at least four percent higher than the second step of their former grades.

Merit Promotion in the Federal Government

Each agency must have procedures for promoting employees based on merit and that are available in writing to candidates. Agencies must list exceptions. Actions under such a plan—including identification, qualification, evaluation or selection of candidates—must be made without regard to political, religious or labor organization affiliation or marital status, race, color, sex, national origin, non-disqualifying physical handicap or age, and must be based solely on job-related criteria.

Areas of consideration must be broad enough to ensure the availability of high quality candidates, taking into account the nature and level of the positions covered. Agencies must also ensure that employees within the area of consideration who are absent for legitimate reasons, such as detail or leave, are considered.

To be eligible for promotion or placement, candidates must meet the minimum qualification standards. Selection procedures provide for management’s right to select or not select from among a group of best qualified candidates, and must take into account reemployment priority rights, reinstatement eligibility and other specialized placement programs.

Career Ladder

Some occupations—most typically, but not exclusively, general schedule professional and administrative positions—have career ladder plans, in which promotion to certain levels is considered automatically after certain periods of service in a job. No employee may receive a career ladder promotion unless his or her current rating of record is “Fully Successful” or higher. In addition, no employee may receive a career ladder promotion who has a rating below “Fully Successful” on a critical element that is also critical to performance at the next higher grade on the career ladder.

Career ladder arrangements typically call for promotion after a certain period of time, assuming that the performance requirements have been met, such as a jump of two grades two years after the hiring. However, employees do not have rights to these promotions, and the agency can delay or even deny them by citing a variety of reasons, including lack of funds.

In unionized workplaces, labor-management contracts may govern some aspects of career ladder arrangements, including conditions for promotion and negotiated grievance rights if a promotion is denied. Non-promotion may be appealable under administrative grievance procedures but generally is not appealable to the Merit Systems Protection Board except when the employee alleges that discriminatory or retaliatory motives were involved.