Could RIFs be the lesser of two evils?


Former intelligence CHCO Ron Sanders

For more than a year, cash-strapped agencies across the government have been offering buyouts and early outs to reduce their payrolls. Several of those agencies said it’s better to cut the rolls voluntary to avoid messy, morale-killing layoffs, or reductions-in-force for those who speak government-ese.

But at today’s Excellence in Government conference, a common refrain emerged: The dreaded RIF may be unavoidable — and may even be a better tool for managing the workforce than buyouts and early outs.

“The R-word — RIF — has its place, because it is the most surgical,” said Ron Sanders, the intelligence community’s former chief human capital officer. “I know that sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be. But if you’re trying to protect critical skills, that’s an option you can’t take off the table.”

Reginald Wells, the Social Security Administration’s CHCO, echoed Sanders in a later session at the conference, sponsored by Government Executive:

Most of us in the human capital world would probably rather not go there, if we can avoid it. I hope not. But I don’t think you can afford to invalidate any legitimate tool. If you tinker around the edges and you still end up with a problem, when you could have had a reduction in force … if you can just sometimes make a cut, and be done with that particular problem, you’re better off.

The problem with buyouts and early outs, Sanders said, is that agencies have limited control over who will leave. There’s no guarantee the people an agency is trying to get rid of will take the offer, Sanders said. And there’s a risk that, unless the offer is narrowly targeted, the agency could lose some vital employees.

A RIF “sometimes does the least harm,” Sanders said. “But these things take time to heal.” The IRS’ remaining workforce was still talking about their 1995 RIF six years later, he said. And those left behind sometimes experience survivor’s guilt.

Wells stressed to Federal Times that SSA is not considering RIFs, and said he hopes other agencies will be able to make it through the current budget crunch without having to take that step.

But with federal agencies already stretched thin, sequestration looming, and current and former HR officials openly discussing the possible necessity of RIFs, could this be the next shoe to drop?


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  1. The Air Force Research Laboratory, for one (maybe other agencies as well) has an emeritus program which permits someone to retire and return as essentially an unpaid volunteer. Those who elect this are almost always sought after for their skills. That they desire to return on a voluntary basis, primarily for the purpose of mentoring others is admirable.

    The emeritus program should be DoD wide. This could not only mitigate the need for RIFs, but could go a long ways towards mitigating the oft-stated federal brain drain.

  2. The problem is, agencies have little control in a lot of ways who will leave under a RIF, too. It’s really no better–and in some ways worse–than a buyout situation that way. For example, if an office has ten employees, and the best performers are the youngest, newest members of the office and the WORST performer is an employee with 30 years of service or an employee with veteran’s preference; there’s zero management discretion available to retain your best performers–you’re going to lose them and be stuck with the dead weight. I think a lot of people forget that gov’t “layoffs” don’t offer the same management discretion to retain a particularly hard-working or valued employee outside of the “seniority” system that is available to managers outside the gov’t. RIFs will never be a great option as long as there isn’t management flexibility to retain a less senior but better performing employee (and the extra ‘points’ awarded under a RIF for performance don’t help often; the extra 20 years of “credit” in a RIF situation awarded to a great-performing employee with 5 or 6 years of service still aren’t enough to let them ‘outrun’ an only middlingly-performing person with 25 or 30 years of service or a poorly performing person with veteran’s preference).

  3. If a RIF was based on the last 3 years of performance the unions will object and call it political. If a RIF is focused in scope, it will be called targeted and political. If a RIF is unfocused (LIFO) it will be called demeaning, mechanical and damanging to future requirements. If RIFs are on the table, they need to be focused but with a clear and transparant reason for determining the scope of their application

  4. The huge problem with RIFs is that management cannot know, in advance, how it will turn out. That is, you have a number of positions targeted for elimination, and you know they will be gone. But in some cases, incumbents will exercise their bump, or retreat rights, and somebody ELSE will have to go.

    Of course, if the somebody else has seniority, then he/she may exercise their own seniority right, and displace a third person.

    How will it all turn out? Nobody knows. A RIF is an administrative nightmare.

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