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Recruitment Policy Studio

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Hiring Toolkit

Fundamentals of Federal Hiring


Merit System Principles (5 USC § 2301)


What are the Merit System Principles?

The Merit System Principles are nine basic standards governing the management of the executive branch workforce. The principles are part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and can be found at 5 U.S.C. § 2301(b).

  1. Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.

    What is the intent behind the first Merit System Principle?
    The first clause, concerning recruitment, sets forth the vision of a federal workforce that is representative of the very people who fund the government through their tax dollars and whom the government exists to serve. The second clause, concerning selection and promotion, represents the core value of a merit-based employment model. Up until the latter part of the 19th century, most executive branch employees obtained their jobs through political connections. The Pendleton Act of 1883 replaced this patronage system with a merit system under which anyone, regardless of political affiliation, may receive a civil service appointment so long as he or she is the best-qualified applicant based on objective criteria. The final clause, concerning equal opportunity, echoes the purpose behind Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related laws barring discrimination in employment.
  2. All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition, and with proper regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.

    What is the intent behind the second Merit System Principle?
    The second principle, concerning fair and equitable treatment, sets forth the vision that Federal personnel management be free of unfair treatment and discrimination, where decisions are made solely on legitimate merit-based considerations. Requiring decision making without regard to political affiliation echoes the intent of the Pendleton Act of 1883 which replaced the patronage system with a merit system. Requiring decision making without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition echoes the purpose behind Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related laws barring discrimination in employment. The final clause makes clear that employees and applicants for employment are entitled to the protections of the Bill of Rights and the Privacy Act.
  3. Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with appropriate consideration of both national and local rates paid by employers in the private sector, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.

    What is the intent behind the third Merit System Principle?
    The third Merit System Principle embodies the vision that maintaining equitable salaries and rewarding excellent performance will attract and retain the most effective and efficient federal workforce through positive employee engagement.

    The Classification Act requires the classification of federal civil service positions in accordance with their duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements, and mandates that in determining the rate of basic pay which an employee will receive, “the principle of equal pay for substantially equal work will be followed.” 5 U.S.C. § 5101(1)(A). The various pay rates and systems in effect today may be found at 5 U.S.C. Chapter 53 and here.

    It is the express policy of Congress that “Federal pay fixing” for employees under the General Schedule and the Prevailing Rate Systems (wage grade employees) be based on the principle that there “be equal pay for substantially equal work within each local pay area.” 5 U.S.C. §§ 5301(1), 5341(1).
  4. All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.

    Merit System #4: High Standards -- "All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest." What does this mean and why is it important?
    This merit system principle serves as the foundation for the standards of ethical conduct applied to all Federal employees. It recognizes that public service is a public trust and that employees are obligated to honor that trust by respect for and adherence to the Constitution, laws, and ethical principles of Government service. In order for an agency to accomplish its mission, its employees’ conduct must command the respect and confidence of the public.
  5. The Federal work force should be used efficiently and effectively.

    What is the intent behind the fifth Merit System Principle?
    To understand this principle’s intent, one ought to consider the balance that must be struck between a Federal employee’s right to be hired and fired solely on the basis of his abilities vis-a-vis the public’s expectation of a Government that is impartially administered and flexibly managed. Simply put, the public has a right to an efficient and effective Government which is responsive to their needs as perceived by elected officials. S. Rep. No. 95-969, at 4 (1978), as reprinted in Committee on Post Office and Civil Service House of Representatives, 96th Cong., Legislative History of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA), at 1468 (1978). In fact, the idea embodied in this Merit System Principle has been referred to as “the fundamental policy” of the CSRA. See National Treasury Employees Union v. Merit Systems Protection Board, 743 F.2d 895, 912 (D.C. Cir. 1984).
  6. Employees should be retained on the basis of adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.

    What is the intent behind the sixth Merit System Principle?
    One of the problems the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (Reform Act) was designed to address was the difficulty of discharging employees for poor performance. The patchwork of statutes, regulations, rules, and judicial restrictions built up over time had conspired, in effect, to tie the hands of the personnel managers. The existing system was described as the “refuge of the incompetent employee,” and when “incompetent and inefficient employees are allowed to stay on the rolls, it is the dedicated and competent employee who must increase his workload so that the public may be benefited.” Remarks of Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff, II House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, 95th Cong. 1st Sess., Legislative History of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 at 1607 (1979). The Reform Act codified the nine merit system principles, including number six on performance, and made other changes, to create “a civil service that is worthy of the public and its confidence: One in which hiring, promotion, and pay are truly based on merit and one in which those who cannot or will not perform their jobs well will not perform at all for the Federal Government.” Id., at 1606.
  7. Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.

    What is the intent behind the seventh Merit System Principle?
    The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (Reform Act) which codified the nine Merit System Principles, including this training imperative, was enacted to create “a civil service that is worthy of the public and its confidence: One in which hiring, promotion, and pay are truly based on merit and one in which those who cannot or will not perform their jobs well will not perform at all for the Federal Government.” Remarks of Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff, II House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, 95th Cong. 1st Sess., Legislative History of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 at 1606 (1979). In furtherance of the accountability inherent in this vision, this training imperative is designed to ensure that employees receive the training they need to perform their jobs; that training plans are integrated into organizations’ overall strategic plans; and that funds are available to accomplish necessary training. As jobs evolve, agencies should invest in the training necessary to assure their employees possess the skills to adapt and excel—even, and perhaps especially, in hard budgetary times. By including training as a Merit System Principle, Congress sought to better assure that employees, who are to be held more strictly accountable for their performance than in the past, are properly trained to achieve successful performance.
  8. Employees should be--
    1. protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and
    2. prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.
    What is the intent behind Merit System Principle Number 8?
    This principle has two parts, each with its own intent and meaning. Subsection (A) first embodies the long-standing legal tenet that Federal agencies cannot treat Federal employees arbitrarily. See Bush v. Lucas, 462 U.S. 367, 385 (1983); Buggie v. Department of Health & Human Services, 27 M.S.P.R. 109, 115 (1985) (Johnson, V.C., concurring). Subsection (A) then incorporates the precept, first established in the Pendleton Act of 1883, that Federal civil servants should not be subject to the impulses of the patronage or “spoils” system, under which political appointees would sometimes coerce the political support of rank-and-file employees in exchange for continued employment or would allow their personal affinity to govern employment decisions. See Lucas, 462 U.S. at 381-82 & n.18; S. Rep. No. 95-969, at 2 (1978), reprinted in 1978 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2723, 2724-26, 2740.

    Subsection (B) bars Federal employees from using their authority or office to influence nominations and elections.
  9. Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences--
    1. a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or
    2. mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an absence of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
    What is the intent behind the ninth Merit System Principle?
    The intent of this principle is to protect whistleblowers against reprisal when they disclose wrongful conduct in an attempt to create a more effective civil service. Whistleblowers help to create an effective civil service because they often are in the best position to witness agency wrongdoing. Without their disclosures, wrongdoing might go unchecked. One of the first pieces of legislation to recognize the value of whistleblowers was the False Claims Act of 1863, which sought to protect the U.S. Government against rampant fraud from unscrupulous suppliers during the Civil War by offering a percentage of the recovered damages to people who disclosed such fraud. Nevertheless, nothing in the False Claims Act specifically protected Federal employees from whistleblower reprisal.
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