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?