Issue Briefs

Following is the section of a recent MSPB report on employee perceptions of prohibited personnel practices, or PPPs, discussing their negative impact on the federal workplace.

Officials who desire that their workplaces run efficiently and effectively should take steps to ensure that PPPs do not occur and that the workforce perceives their officials as complying with these rules.

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In recent years, MSPB, OPM, and others have emphasized the importance of engagement in the effective operation of the civil service. Our 2008 report, The Power of Federal Employee Engagement, explained that, among other things, employee engagement had a relationship to agency performance results, reduced use of sick leave, and reduced workplace injuries.

Our 2011 report on the PPPs noted that employees who reported they had observed or experienced a PPP were less likely to be highly engaged. That finding remains true for the 2016 MPS data as well.

While 57 percent of those respondents who neither saw nor experienced a PPP were engaged, only 21 percent of those who observed a PPP (without experiencing one) were engaged, and only 14 percent of those who reported being personally affected by a PPP were engaged.

Research has shown that a workplace’s culture can cause an individual to “bring themselves into or remove themselves from particular task behaviors.”12 If you want an employee to bring all of himself or herself to the performance of a duty (e.g., creativity, energy, and commitment to excellence), then the workplace culture matters.

Our 2016 MPS asked respondents a series of questions about their workplace culture. The relationship between PPP perceptions and the individual workplace culture survey items can be seen in Appendix B. To aid discussion, we combined responses to the 19 workplace culture questions into a single measure and assigned respondents to 3 categories of approximately equal size (“most positive,” “moderately positive,” and “least positive”) based on that measure.

Only 10 percent of those who experienced one or more PPPs, and 18 percent of those who observed one or more PPPs (without experiencing any), reported a workplace culture in the “most positive” category. That contrasts with 46 percent among the respondents who did not experience or observe a PPP.

The data cannot establish whether observing a PPP increases the likelihood of an employee perceiving the workplace culture negatively, or whether perceptions of a poor culture increase the likelihood that management actions will be negatively interpreted as the commission of a PPP. Similarly, the data cannot establish whether observing a PPP increases the likelihood of an employee feeling disengaged, or whether disengagement increases the likelihood that management actions will be negatively interpreted as the commission of a PPP. However, none of these scenarios are good for the merit systems or an effective and efficient civil service.

Given the comparatively negative workplace culture in work units where PPPs are perceived, it is unsurprising that PPP perceptions also coincided with perceptions that there were barriers to employees doing their best work. On our 2016 MPS, we asked respondents if they agreed with the statement, “My work unit produces high-quality products and services.” Of those employees who reported they neither saw nor experienced any PPPs, 90 percent agreed with the statement about their work unit producing high-quality products and services. But, of those who reported they experienced a PPP, only 59 percent agreed the work unit’s products and services were high-quality. Of those who reported they observed at least one PPP—while personally experiencing no PPPs—only 71 percent agreed the products and services were high-quality. In other words, there was a nearly 20 percentage point drop between those in a workplace without visible PPPs and those in a workplace where PPPs were seen, and another 12 point drop beyond that for those who perceived they experienced one or more PPPs.

It is important to recognize that these views about products and services are perceptions, and it is possible for perceptions to be in error. However, it is problematic that employees in the work units, who would—presumably—be in a good position to judge what the work units were producing, would have these views.

Also worrisome is the negative relationship between PPP perceptions and perceptions that creativity and innovation would be rewarded. For those who neither saw nor experienced PPPs, 59 percent of respondents agreed that creativity and innovation are rewarded. But, for those who observed at least one PPP—while experiencing none—the agreement rate dropped by more than half, to 25 percent. For those who experienced at least one PPP, only 16 percent agreed.

The Government has become increasingly dependent on knowledge-based work and relies on innovative ideas for improvement. For those who observed or experienced a PPP, the low agreement levels that creativity and innovation are rewarded are especially problematic. Human capital is the Government’s most valuable resource and the American people cannot afford to have the value of that resource so greatly diminished.

The Government also needs to be able to recruit high-quality employees. Yet, employees who perceive PPPs are much less likely to recommend their agency as a place to work. Among those who did not observe or experience a PPP, 81 percent agreed that they would recommend their agency as a place to work. For those who observed one or more PPPs, the agreement rate dropped to 51 percent, while those who reported personally experiencing one or more PPPs had only 36 percent of respondents agree.

The 2016 MPS asked respondents if there was a spirit of trust in their work unit. While 74 percent of those who reported observing or experiencing none of the listed PPPs agreed there was a spirit of trust, only 38 percent of those who observed a PPP and 29 percent of those who experienced a PPP reported there was a spirit of trust. (The relationship between PPP perceptions and more workplace culture survey items can be seen in Appendix B.)

Personnel decisions can be subjective, with reasonable people disagreeing on the best approach. This can produce an opportunity for suspicion about motives and therefore perceptions that a personnel action is based on a prohibited practice. The perception alone is not proof of an impropriety, but such a perception can, nevertheless, have a negative effect on the work unit.

As the data has shown, employees perceiving that their agency engages in PPPs has a strong relationship to how employees view their work unit and agency as a whole. In addition to being a violation of law, the commission of a PPP is simply a bad business practice with real-world costs for the organizations that are seen as permitting them to occur.