It’s a common trope. Some federal worker who sits in the office and reads the newspaper all day and snaps at anyone who tries to assign them work. They are ruining the morale of the entire office, but apparently it’s “impossible to fire a federal employee”.
But is that trope really true?
Despite what you may think, it is possible to get terminated as a federal employee. If you get fired from a federal agency, you might wonder what happens to your retirement benefits or other benefits.
While I hope you get to leave federal service on your own terms, it is important to know what happens if you get fired from a federal job so that you don’t agree to anything during the termination process that you might later regret.Get Gov Worker’s top 4 tips for federal employees!
Table of Contents
- The three ways to get fired from a federal job
- What if I’m wrongfully terminated?
- Do you lose your pension if you get fired from a federal job?
- How can you lose your federal pension?
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The three ways to get fired from a federal job
Now there is some truth to the fact that it may hard to fire federal employee. (Or at least harder than a private sector job.)
Unlike private sector jobs, federal employees have more job security because their jobs are constitutionally protected under the 14th Amendment therefore you cannot get fired without the due process of the law.
That doesn’t mean that government employees can’t get fired from federal jobs. It just means that they are not at-will employees and can only get fired for certain reasons and must be given due process in the termination process. What sorts of reasons would result in a federal employee getting fired? There’s basically only 3 of them:
1. Getting fired during your federal employment probation period
All federal employees start off under a probationary period. The probationary period is at least one year, but I’ve heard of certain jobs requiring a 3 year probationary period. During your probationary period, it is relatively easy to remove a federal employee.
Remember how I said all that stuff about due process and constitutionally protected? It doesn’t apply to probationary employees. It’s the government’s opportunity to evaluate you and see if you are a good fit for the position. If you have any performance or disciplinary issues during this time, you will likely be fired.
2. Getting fired for misconduct
Assuming you’re not under probation, there’s basically only two reasons the federal government can fire you. You are either a poor performer, or you did something wrong (misconduct). I read our Agency’s disciplinary reports every year, and I can say with certainty that the majority of federal employees that get fired get fired for misconduct rather than performance.
What is misconduct? It’s breaking agency rules. Some examples might be
- Not showing up to work or being late to work (AWOL)
- Misuse of government funds/credit cards
- Misuse of government vehicles
- Physical altercations in the workplace
- Verbal abuse
- Harassment including sexual harassment
It’s clear that none of the above things should be happening at work. But whether the employee gets fired for one of these offenses depends on what’s called the “Douglas Factors“. The Douglas Factors come from a case heard by Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) called Douglas vs. Veterans Administration, 5 M.S.P.R. 280 (1981). Basically, they say that the punishment must fit the crime. For example it states that the severity of the discipline must reflect
- The nature and seriousness of the offense
- Whether the employee is a supervisor
- Whether the employee has a past issue of other discipline
- Consistency of the penalty across the agency and across government
For example, are you a stellar employee with 30 years of service who was AWOL for 30 minutes around your lunch break one day? Well, your punishment is going to be different than if you’re a GS-15 supervisor who has been documented as AWOL for 2 hours a day for the past month.
The Douglas Factors will decide whether you get a written reprimand, suspension, or termination for your misconduct. However, termination is definite a possibility for misconduct.
3. Getting fired for poor performance
Unlike misconduct, it is hard to get fired for performance (or at least harder). For misconduct, there is clear evidence of wrongdoing. Your Agency has a rule, you were caught breaking the rule, and you face discipline.
For performance, if you begin to fail performance metrics, your Agency must first give you opportunities to show that you can work at an acceptable level of performance before your performance review. When I started working for government, these were called “performance improvement plans” or (PIPs) but they are now called “Demonstration Opportunities” (or DOs) at least in my agency.
No matter if it’s called a PIP or a DO, the idea is a same. It’s a formal process of being put on notice that your performance is unacceptable. If you’re in a DO, you’ll have documented meetings with your supervisory weekly to discuss your performance for the duration of the Demonstration Opportunity Window (you’re typically given 30 to 60 days). The DO will also spell out what you need to accomplish to improve your performance to fully successful. If you cannot meet your minimum performance metrics by the end of the period, you may be terminated.
As you can see, it is much harder to get terminated for poor performance because your Agency must give you a chance to demonstrate you can do your job. While a DO is undoubtably stressful, there is a lot of oversight into what you need to accomplish to achieve a successful outcome from the process.
What if I’m wrongfully terminated?
I just spent a long time explaining how the process is supposed to work. However, I’ve been in government long enough to know that there are some supervisors who either don’t know the rules or don’t follow the rules.
If you feel you are in the process of getting fired, you’ll probably need to hire an attorney from a law firm specializing in federal employment law. Alternatively, if you’re a bargaining unit employee, you’ll want to work with the union to file a grievance and/or see what other options they have at their disposal.
An employment attorney can help you file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protections Board (MSPB) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Do you lose your pension if you get fired from a federal job?
Let’s say you did get fired. Will you lose your pension?
In most cases, the answer is “no”.
If you are fired for performance issues nothing will happen to your pension. In fact, you can even file for a discontinued service retirement upon termination and receive a pension (with health benefits) immediately if you are age 50 with 20 years of service or any age with 25 years of service. (Note that the ability to receive a discontinued service annuity does not apply if you are fired for misconduct).
Even if you are fired for misconduct, you may still be eligible to receive your pension, so long as you were not fired for some serious criminal offenses (see next section).
If you are fired for performance or misconduct and are already eligible for an immediate voluntary retirement, you can file for retirement and receive your full retirement package. If you are not yet at retirement age when terminated, you can apply for a deferred retirement when you become eligible to withdraw a pension.
If you are facing disciplinary action, your supervisor may threaten you with termination and may make claims that you would lose your pension if you got fired to encourage you to resign rather than being fired. That’s why it’s important to know your rights a government worker! And if you are facing unlawful termination or whistleblower retaliation, definitely try to find an attorney or talk to your union as soon as possible.
How can you lose your federal pension?
As I mentioned before, it is possible to lose your federal pension for certain types of misconduct or other criminal activities. This is spelled out in Title 5, Subchapter II of the United States Code (5 USC 8311-8322). There are several offenses listed in this part of the USC that would deny you a pension. Most of the crimes involve treason or an attempt to overthrow the government. Here are some examples:
- gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign government
- disclosure of classified information
- treason, sedition, and subversive activities
- advocating overthrow of government
Note that 5 USC § 8312 states that “An individual, or his survivor or beneficiary, may not be paid annuity or retired pay… if the individual— [is convicted of one of the crimes below]“
Therefore, it is possible to lose your pension even after you have retired if you are later convicted for one of the crimes in 5 USC 8312- which in general relate to treason, sedition, or other attempts to overthrow the government in violation of the federal employee oath of office.
I really hope that you never find yourself in a position where you might face involuntary dismissal. However, unless you’re facing charges of serious treasonous crimes, you’ll likely be able to keep your pension and withdraw it once you reach retirement age.
If you found this content helpful, I created a whole playlist on YouTube of Federal Employee Guides that can walk you through some of the trickiest parts of federal employment to understand. Feel free to check out some of those videos and drop a comment if they’ve helped you out.
SamSam i.e. "Gov Worker" started working for the government at age 18 and loved it so much that he never left. He started GovernmentWorkerFI in 2019 to help fellow federal employees understand their benefits, take control of their finances, and live their best lives.
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