The number of federal employees getting automatic grade promotions has skyrocketed, prompting experts to ask whether managers are abandoning their responsibilities to make personnel decisions.
The number of so-called "career ladder promotions" — which can boost an employee's pay by more than $10,000 a year, in some cases — jumped roughly 75 percent in the last three years, according to federal data. Last year, more than 108,000 employees received career ladder promotions, accounting for 35 percent of all promotions to a higher grade in the government last year. That's up from about 21 percent in 2008.
These promotions enable newly hired employees to quickly move up the ranks of the General Schedule and other personnel systems virtually automatically. Instead of advancing to the next step in their grade after a year on the job — which provides a roughly 3 percent increase — employees move up one or two entire grades. That gives them anywhere from a 10 percent to a 20 percent raise in one year.
Some employees receive career ladder promotions several years in a row as they advance to their full promotion level.
Last year — the first year of a freeze to federal pay scales — the raises accompanying career ladder promotions cost the government between $634 million and $852 million, according to Federal Times calculations based on promotion statistics obtained from the Office of Personnel Management.
Career ladder promotions are intended to provide a path for employees who come in at the entry level to advance — without competition — as they learn new skills. Some federal personnel experts say it also has the effect of encouraging retention of young employees because their pay increases quickly.
Surveys show new feds' job satisfaction plunges after about three years, and the government fears that will make it tougher to hold on to these employees.
However, the use of career ladder promotions exploded in the post-recession period, while the private-sector job market remained extremely soft nationwide and the government was one of the few industries still hiring.
Sign of trouble
Former OPM executives Linda Springer and Henry Romero say the rote promotion of tens of thousands of employees each year reflects the abysmal job the government does in evaluating employees' performance and holding poor or mediocre performers accountable.
Springer, who directed OPM under President George W. Bush, fears employees receiving career ladder promotions aren't actually taking on enough new responsibilities to justify a noncompetitive grade promotion.
The private sector, on the other hand, usually does make sure employees accelerating through the ranks are doing more.
"From what I've observed in the private sector, that individual's … extra seasoning justifies their being able to take on an expanded role and greater responsibility, so they move to the next level," Springer said. "In the government, I'm not sure that's consistently the case."
Romero, a former OPM pay policy executive, said career ladder promotions have almost become an entitlement.
"It's not supposed to be, but in reality, they become automatic," Romero said. "Very few managers are in the position to say, ‘You're not ready' because there's the expectation there. It becomes an entitlement. As opposed to [employees thinking], ‘I hope my supervisor promotes me,' it's, ‘They better have a good reason not to promote me.' "
In OPM's 2011 survey of the federal workforce, less than half of employees — 42 percent — felt promotions were based on merit.
Romero said the root of the problem lies in the government's chronic inability to properly manage employees' performance.
"There isn't a culture in the government that focuses on ensuring only the fully performing and fully satisfactory get promoted," Romero said. Managers "don't follow through because they're not getting backing from their chain of command, and they're discouraged from making waves, creating a situation where an unhappy employee is going to file a grievance. That is the culture at many agencies."
Springer said the government needs to make performance appraisals more rigorous, and better track whether employees take on more duties and perform at levels that merit promotion.
Howard Risher, who was the managing consultant for the studies that led to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, thinks the volume of career ladder promotions shows that an overhaul of the government's pay system is overdue.
"The classification system is broken, is what it means," said Risher, who is a vocal critic of how the government pays employees. "When you come in as a new hire out of college, your promotions [through the career ladder] are pretty much automatic. It's very easy to play games with that stuff. It's a way to get nice salary increases and to get your job graded at a higher grade."
Unlike most standard promotions to a higher grade — where an employee's job is reopened for competition at a higher grade and the employee must beat out other candidates — career ladder promotions are noncompetitive.
In almost all cases, Risher said, the promotions are handed out as soon as an employee meets his one-year time-in-grade requirement.
"There isn't a chance that's common in the private sector," Risher said. "This is a major problem."
How it works
Employees hired into career ladder positions usually come in at lower-graded trainee positions; the intention is to develop and promote them until they reach their top possible level.
Some jobs — such as a video editor position at the Veterans Affairs Department in Arlington, Va., recently advertised on USAJobs.gov — offer multigrade career ladder promotions. The person who receives that VA job, for example, would come in as a GS-9 and, if he performs to standard and takes on more skills and responsibilities, would likely be a GS-11 after his first year.
After another year, that employee would be promoted to GS-12. That would bring his pay up from $51,630 to $74,872 in two years — at least a 45 percent or $23,000 increase, or possibly more if Congress breaks the current pay-scale freeze.
John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said some employees who progress rapidly through the ranks may find themselves in a gilded cage, where their federal salaries far outstrip what the private sector can offer and they can't pursue other opportunities outside the government.
"I don't know how common it is, but it does occur," Palguta said.
Not all experts think the growth in career ladder promotions is a sign of trouble.
"It's actually good news," said Ron Sanders, the former chief human capital officer for the intelligence community. "If a senior person retires, say at the 13 or 14 level, in most cases, their position isn't filled at 13 or 14. Instead, someone comes in at a relatively low grade, and they go through an intense two- or three-year program, rotational assignments, classroom training and mentoring … to get them from the training level to full performance level as soon as possible."
The bulk of career ladder promotions go to jobs such as human resources, prison guards, program analysts, auditors, claims examiners, contracting specialists and information technology management.
Nearly 2,300 clerks and assistants also got career ladder promotions in fiscal 2009, according to the latest available OPM statistics.
That struck Sanders as unusual, and he said the government should take a closer look at why clerks and assistants are getting so many automatic grade promotions.