The Tricky Question of Job Security for Public Employees

It's not a simple issue, but there are some guiding principles to keep in mind.
September 7, 2016
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

From teacher tenure and law enforcement at the local-government level to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Secret Service at the federal level, the subject of job security for public employees looms large. How should government approach this subject? Are there principles that could be derived from experience and widely applied?

We can only address the subject in terms of the purposes of government agencies. Government agencies do not exist for the purpose of providing employment, much less the purpose of providing secure employment. Government employs people to accomplish a wide range of objectives. Employment is clearly a means to an end, not an end in itself. The question insofar as employment security is concerned, then, is how it bears on the attainment of government's larger purposes.

It is clearly wrong to see job security as inherently desirable or undesirable. It is neither. Job security is desirable to the extent that it contributes positively to the achievement of government's purposes and undesirable to the extent that it negatively affects those purposes.

We can stipulate that good employees sometimes require protection from bad supervisors and bad management. We can also stipulate that good management and good supervisors are sometimes obliged to discharge bad employees, including bad managers and supervisors. In short, performance at work -- on the part of individuals and groups -- ranges from the exemplary to the unacceptable. There are no monopolies on goodness. It is therefore imperative that government agencies possess the authority to deal with unacceptable performance.

Further, we can stipulate that public-employee unions have a contractual duty to serve all of their members. This duty obliges them to argue against termination as a matter of principle. We can also stipulate that managers who bear broad responsibility for institutional performance desire, also as a matter of principle, to maximize their authority to hire and fire. It is problematic to hold managers responsible for workplace performance when their authority over the workplace is tenuous.

Are we stuck, then, with opposing and irreconcilable responsibilities and principles? In practice, to date, the answer is that we are stuck. But consider that there is widespread agreement that, at the highest levels, agency heads and top executives are at-will employees subject to removal at any time for any reason. There is also agreement in practice that, at the entry level, probationary employees are also at-will employees. Is there no room for agreement about employees in between these levels?

I would argue that job security should vary in degree in accordance with two indicators. The first indicator is authority and responsibility. Because government employers must be able to respond when authority is misused and responsibilities are not met, jobs with high levels of authority and responsibility should enjoy substantially less job security than jobs with low levels of authority and responsibility.

The second indicator is compensation. Less job security should attach to higher-paid jobs than to lower-paid ones. This is so because government agencies are obliged to produce cost-effective outcomes. Accordingly, they must have more authority over their higher-paid employees than over their lesser-paid ones.

It is hard to quarrel with these general principles. The problem comes in practice. Employees and their representatives understandably don't like the idea of giving up job security in exchange for greater responsibilities and compensation, so they quite rightly demand as much job security as they can obtain. For their part, government employers have long grown accustomed to exercising minimal authority over the workplace; this is also a convenient excuse for failing to exercise supervisory and managerial responsibilities.

But agencies of government have a duty, to the public and to the elected officials who bear ultimate responsibility, to continuously improve things, even when they are going right, and to fix things when they are going wrong. This obliges government agencies to be constantly fine-tuning, in the best of circumstances, and overhauling and reforming in other circumstances. In other words, government agencies must continuously attend to their workforces in the interest of obtaining the best possible outcomes.

It used to be that government salaries were low while benefits and job security were high, which was fair enough. But the modern world obliges government to be competitive with the private sector in salaries and benefits. In this new world, it isn't fair to public employers to apply the job-security practices of the past.

It is fine, as a general rule, for lower-level, lower-paid employees to enjoy higher levels of job security than higher-level, higher-paid employees. But no employee, and no level of employment, can be beyond reach. Every agency must have the means of reconstituting and reforming its workplace in pursuit of the purposes for which it exists.

The best approach would be for management and labor to agree on the cost of employee departure rather than to fight about job security. In general, the cost of departure should be less for higher-level , higher-paid employees and more for lower-level, lower-paid employees. It would also be reasonable to factor in length of employment.

It is altogether appropriate that there be economic cost for removing employees. It is sad, but nevertheless true, that all too often it would be a cost worth paying.