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Supervisory Probationary Period: A Missed Opportunity

As stated in our 2005 report The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity, the probationary period is a critical step in the applicant assessment process.  The probationary period provides the Government an opportunity to evaluate an individual’s conduct and performance on the job to determine if an appointment to the civil service should become final.  In that study, we found that supervisors were not making effective use of the probationary period.  In a subsequent study, A Call to Action: Improving First-Level Supervision, we found that the supervisory probationary period is not being used any more effectively.

When initially appointed to a supervisory position, all Federal supervisors are required to serve a probationary period.  Unlike the length of the non-supervisory probationary period—which is one year—the head of an agency can determine the length of the supervisory probation period, as long as it is a reasonable fixed duration, appropriate to the position, and consistently applied.  If a supervisor does not perform successfully during that time, he or she should be removed from the supervisory role and returned to a position of no lower grade and pay than the previous position.

Data from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Central Personnel Data File indicates that Federal managers are rarely using the probationary period to remove unsuccessful supervisors from their positions.  In Fiscal Year 2007, 28,731 supervisors were hired but only 117 actions were taken by all Federal agencies due to new supervisors’ failure to successfully complete the probationary period.  Seventy-three of these actions were reassignment to non-supervisory positions and 44 were separation from the agency.

Because the length of probation varies by agency, we cannot directly compare the percentage of new supervisors who failed probation in that year with the number hired.  However, the number of actions taken each year can supply us with a rough estimate of the percentage of new supervisors who do not pass probation.  For FY 2007, just four-tenths of one percent of new supervisors were either reassigned to a non-supervisory position or were separated.  We found consistently low rates of unsuccessful completion of the probationary period going back to 1998.

It is unlikely that such a small a percentage of new supervisors would be unsuccessful in a new leadership role.  This role offers different challenges than a technical position so even the most highly skilled technicians may not perform well as supervisors.  Several studies of the success of new leaders in a wide range of organizations have found that 20 percent or more fail.  Managers’ use of the probationary period to make decisions about the suitability of new supervisors is even less common than its use for the workforce overall.  In our 2005 study on the use of the probationary period for all new employees, we reported that somewhat less than 2 percent of competitive service employees are removed in their first year.

This low failure rate among Federal supervisors suggests that many agencies are failing to use the probationary period as intended, allowing many novice supervisors to continue in a supervisory role despite observable evidence that they will not be very successful in that role.

We also found that knowledge about the supervisory probationary period was lacking.  All new supervisors should clearly understand that they must successfully complete a probationary period as part of the selection process.  In the 2007 Merit Principles Survey (MPS), we asked first-level supervisors if they had been informed when they first became a supervisor that they would be required to serve a probationary period.  We also asked them if their performance during their probationary period as a supervisor was actually used to decide if they should continue in a supervisory role.

Only 64 percent of supervisors affirmed that they were informed of the probation period, while fewer than half (47 percent) stated that their performance during their probationary period was used to decide if they should retain a supervisory role.  These data provide additional evidence that many managers are not appropriately using the probationary period as it was intended as the final step in the selection process for supervisors.

Use of the probationary period to identify effective supervisors is critical to organizational performance because of the extensive impact supervisors have on the performance of the workforce.  Therefore, agencies need to hold managers accountable for using the probationary period wisely as the final step in the selection process.