One of the major focus areas for a public sector HR department is to ensure fairness.  Bad behavior shouldn’t be tolerated because of job title.  Employees shouldn’t be hired because of relationships.  The quality of service citizens receive shouldn’t be based on which employee they reach.  Policies are put in place by HR to ensure these things don’t happen – and investigations are necessary to make sure the problem is addressed when these things do happen.

But HR departments also have to maintain the perception of fairness.  In order for citizens and employees to support their government, they have to believe they’re being treated fairly by it.  In this area, unfortunately, there’s much progress to be made.   The most recent example: according to the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 39% of federal employees believe promotions are based on merit.  That’s the same percentage of employees who believe that differences in performance are recognized in any meaningful way.

While we don’t have these numbers for state or local governments, there’s little reason to believe that they would be better on the aggregate.

Government employees don’t believe they or their co-workers are paid based on their contributions.  That’s far from headline news.  There’s no multi-million-dollar bribe, high-level coverup, or conflict of interest here.  Nobody is likely to get grilled on the topic by a congressional subcommittee.  But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a distressing fact for an HR department.

There were more than 615,000 responses to this survey, which was distributed across the federal government.  Around 375,000 of those employees say that co-workers aren’t being paid based on their contributions.  Of course, it’s possible that employees are being unfairly cynical about their agencies’ promotion and compensation systems. 

But if those employees are right, this would be the largest coordinated reporting of government waste in history.  Collectively, federal employees are paid more than $100 billion annually.  If pay isn’t commensurate with contribution, top contributors, who are underpaid, will be more likely to leave.  Weak contributors, who are overpaid, are more likely to stay. 

Of course, creating a larger pay and promotion gap between high performers and low performers wouldn’t be an easy task even if it was the only job an HR department had.  The Federal Wage System is just a few years shy of its 50th anniversary, and the General Schedule celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023.  It’s probably a good idea to redesign a compensation system more than once or twice a century. 

Another challenge is that the regulations designed to ensure a fair work environment are a major part of the problem.  Government employees are less likely than their private sector counterparts to lose their jobs for no good reason.  Unfortunately, making it difficult to treat employees unfairly has also made it difficult to treat people differently when it’s the only fair thing to do.  These protections are popular among the federal workforce even if it’s preventing them from being compensated fairly, because they promote job security.

Despite the difficulty of addressing the issue, the collective disbelief of merit-based pay and promotions in the federal government warrants attention from HR offices, congressional leaders and executive branch leadership.  A higher perception of fairness among federal employees will lead to higher-quality service, fewer recruiting difficulties, and most importantly, less waste.

To learn how CMTS:HR can help your agency manage HR investigations, call us at 919-747-3812 or email us at