Issue Briefs

Following is a summary of a recent MSPB report examining how well federal employees at all levels understand two key elements of laws governing federal employment—the merit system principles, which set the overall standards for the civil service, and the prohibited personnel practices, which specify what workplace decisions are barred.

Our research finds a disparity between the widespread professed knowledge of the MSPs by Federal employees and the perceived implementation of those principles within the Federal Government. Observations by members of the human resources management (HRM) community suggest that this may be due, at least in part, to variations in the quality and quantity of training on the MSPs (and avoidance of PPPs) that is provided within agencies. For example, results from MSPB surveys indicate that most nonsupervisory employees (74 percent) and supervisors (89 percent) claim familiarity with the MSPs. However, Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs) and HRM staff were somewhat less likely to view employees and supervisors as adequately knowledgeable of the MSPs. Given their organizational role as objective advisors regarding workforce management decisions, HRM employees may offer a more accurate perspective to assess the familiarity of employees and supervisors with practices that are consistent with the MSPs. The existence of a discrepancy between the self-ratings of employees and supervisors and the evaluations provided by HRM staff suggests a need for improving education regarding MSPs and PPPs since it is critical for all Federal employees to understand the rights and responsibilities inherent in the merit systems.


We assessed the current level of agency training on the MSPs and PPPs through a 2011 survey of HRM staff and an agency questionnaire that was distributed to CHCOs in 2014. Their responses revealed a wide range in the information provided to employees at various levels. Less than half of managers and supervisors were thought to receive extensive training on the MSPs and PPPs, while slightly under 15 percent received little or no training on the MSPs or PPPs. A disappointingly large number of HRM staff also responded that they had received little or no training on the MSPs (17 percent) or PPPs (12 percent). Therefore, some agencies are currently failing to provide employees with the training that they need to successfully fulfill their responsibilities to uphold the merit system principles. Agencies should ensure that all employees (though particularly supervisors, managers and executives, including political appointees) understand how the MSPs should impact all workforce management decisions. Agencies can accomplish this by providing employees with appropriate training at critical junctures in their careers. At a minimum, employees should receive training upon joining the organization, whether at the entry level or as a high-ranking executive. Employees should also receive more detailed training that is tailored to their responsibilities each time they move into a new role with broader decision-making authority, such as a supervisor or manager. Further, in these critical roles, one-time training is insufficient. Refresher training should be provided at regular intervals to ensure supervisors remain up-to-date regarding the application of the MSPs, as well as understand that their leadership views this expertise as a priority. Given that agencies are legally bound to provide supervisors with refresher training on a number of topics related to workforce management at a minimum of every three years, this represents an opportunity for agencies to incorporate the MSPs into this training, thereby meeting the existing requirement, while enhancing the organization’s ability to function effectively within the Federal merit systems. In terms of outcomes, many employees lack confidence that organizations successfully achieve the ideals espoused in the MSPs. In particular, employees remain skeptical that managers effectively and efficiently manage the workforce, such as by selecting and retaining the best qualified (rather than those with whom they have personal relationships) and by appropriately dealing with employees whose performance is lacking. These employee perceptions may be inaccurate due to other requirements, such as the test security requirements which may obscure the assessment criteria, as well as the mandatory confidentiality of disciplinary actions, which may prevent other employees from knowing which steps the supervisor has taken. However, educating employees about these requirements may help them to be better informed about what information to which they may or may not be privy. When employees believe that they are knowledgeable about the requirements of the MSPs and the PPPs and yet believe that supervisors do not adhere to those requirements, there are several possible explanations. First of all, this discrepancy may suggest a need for additional education of employees (including supervisors) as it may indicate an inadequate understanding of the MSPs and PPPs. The MSP education process must go beyond superficial knowledge of the MSPs to provide an in-depth understanding of their meaning and intent to improve the application of these principles within the complexities of their organizations.

Additionally, employees and particularly supervisors would benefit from gaining a greater understanding of the expectations and implementation of the MSPs. In some organizations, this may include paying more attention to holding employees (at all levels) accountable for adhering to the MSPs. To facilitate this goal, agency leaders need to hold their employees as well as themselves responsible for embodying the full range of the MSPs. This report is designed to provide information on the MSPs and related practices by summarizing the meaning and intent of each MSP. By referencing illustrative cases of what not to do, these explanations go beyond the content of the MSPs to provide additional context to aid Federal supervisors (and other employees) in making merit-based decisions. Furthermore, we summarize findings and recommendations from related MSPB research and point readers to additional references for more details. Recommendations Promote merit-based management of the Federal workforce through education and action. Management of the Federal workforce should be guided by the MSPs. However, the realities of what this looks like can vary depending on the circumstances. The MSPs require examining individual circumstances and exercising judgment regarding what could and should be done to support the merit systems. HRM staff and other sources can provide advice on a case-by-case basis. However, a more concerted approach to educate different components of the workforce should complement these individual consultations. The mandatory training required for new supervisors (within one year of their initial appointment and refresher training at least every three years) 6 should include comprehensive training on the MSPs and PPPs. Topics currently required by the mandatory refresher training include components of the MSPs, such as managing poor performers and providing training and developmental opportunities. Although these represent essential areas of supervisory responsibility, agencies should think more broadly and include the broader range of management practices covered by the MSPs and PPPs. Training on the MSPs and PPPs should also be tailored for political appointees who may have supervisory and managerial experience, but lack familiarity with the requirements of the Federal merit systems. These executives need to be introduced to the concepts inherent in the Federal merit systems because these may differ in some fundamental ways from the management practices to which they are accustomed. In addition to training supervisors, managers, and executives, agencies also need to ensure that all employees possess a basic understanding of the MSPs and PPPs. This knowledge can serve to decrease the potential for misunderstandings of how employees should be managed within the Federal merit systems However, while increased education on the MSPs for executives, managers, supervisors and other employees is critical, it is not sufficient. Supervisors at all levels must also be held accountable for their decisions, to ensure that they are supporting the intent of the MSPs.

Key Recommendations for Agencies

To ensure a merit-based culture that promotes the MSPs and protects against PPPs, it is essential that agencies: Select supervisors who have demonstrated their commitment to upholding the high expectations of the Federal merit systems. Provide in-depth training regarding the content and applications of the MSPs and PPPs (as well as the potential costs for not adhering to these expectations) to all supervisors at the time of hire and on a regularly recurring basis. Ensure that supervisors receive the required training at the time of selection and as needed in subsequent years (at a minimum frequency of every three years as legally mandated). Although the requirements do not specifically mention the MSPs and PPPs, to adequately perform their duties, this training should cover not only the content of the MSPs and PPPs, but also how they impact their workforce management decisions. Ensure that political appointees are well-informed about the practical implications of the MSPs and PPPs and understand the criticality of demonstrating their full support of the Federal merit systems given their influential leadership role. Hold all supervisors, managers and executives accountable for adhering to the MSPs and avoiding PPPs. Ensure HRM employees have the expertise to correctly advise regarding the impact of the MSPs on all workforce management decisions. Educate employees regarding their rights and responsibilities according to the MSPs and PPPs and ensure that they are aware of the procedures for redress in the event they feel their rights have been violated. Understand the dual responsibility to employees and the public to manage the Federal workforce fairly and effectively.

Key Recommendations for Supervisors

Supervisors directly manage the Federal workforce, therefore, each supervisor must: Fully appreciate the implications of each MSP and PPP to understand how their actions impact their agency’s embodiment of the merit systems. Ask for assistance from HRM staff or others with relevant expertise prior to taking an action that could be inconsistent with the MSPs or constitute a PPP. Work with HRM to understand the options available to achieve the desired merit-based goals, and not request that HRM take actions that violate MSPs or result in PPPs.

Key Recommendations for Human Resources Management Staff


HRM employees play a critical role in helping agencies and managers promote the MSPs and avoid the commission of PPPs. To that end, they should: Provide expert advice on merit-based workforce management, including best practices for recruiting, hiring (including promoting), evaluating performance, determining awards, distributing work assignments and training and development opportunities, and administering discipline. Take appropriate action upon observing a violation of a MSP or the commission of a PPP. HRM supervisors, managers and executives need to support HRM staff when they raise concerns regarding MSPs or PPPs.

Key Recommendations for Employees

Employees should take the following steps to manage their performance and careers: Learn more about the MSPs and the PPPs. Work with supervisors and colleagues to support the MSPs. When it appears that a MSP has been violated or a PPP committed, consider the options, such as discussing the act with HRM or the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office or by filing a grievance, appeal or complaint. The MSPs should be supported (and the PPPs avoided) through several means: (1) proactive education of all employees; (2) holding employees accountable through internal agency mechanisms, and (3) enforcing accountability through external agencies (when necessary). These processes provide multiple layers of support for sustaining the Federal merit systems as envisioned by the architects of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.