Monday, October 24th, 2011 - 15:01
When public sector leaders talk about creating greater efficiency in government ("leaner and meaner," and so on) often their approach boils down to reductions in work force.
Last week, USA Today’s lead headline was “Budget Cuts Claim Hundreds of Thousands of County, City Jobs.” But the story has a more disturbing subtext. When public sector leaders talk about creating greater efficiency in government (“leaner and meaner,” and so on) often their approach boils down to reductions in work force. And, indeed, it would appear that if a government can produce the same quantity and quality of service with fewer people that can be a very good thing.
But there’s a little noticed catch, buried deep in union contracts and civil service provisions of many cities, states and the federal government. The problem falls under the broad term “bumping rights.”
Here’s how that works: When a civil-service employee who has bumping rights is laid off, that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she goes home and starts circling jobs-wanted ads in the local paper. No, that laid off person can find someone at a lower job level or someone at the same level with less seniority and take their job. So that person winds up without a job? Not necessarily. They may be able to bump someone one level down. And so on and so on like a series of human dominoes.
The history of this practice in individual jurisdictions is often buried in history. Bumping rights have simply been approved in contract after contract for generations. But one thing is clear: It frequently does not promote greater efficiency or effectiveness. “The process was not designed as a management tool to help you shape the future workforce wisely at a time of reduction. . . ” says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. “It takes out of the hands of managers the ability to determine who stays and who goes. It becomes almost a mechanical process based mostly on seniority and a little bit on performance.”
New York State. Consider this example from New York State: Not so long ago, an Instructional Technology Specialist, who worked for New York in that position for eight years was laid off. But he had rights to bump himself back to a position as a science teacher, and wound up in the classroom. The only problem is that he had no experience teaching in a classroom. So, according to a document from the state education department, “the practical effect of the current regulation is that someone may wind up classroom teaching though they have no experience doing so.” In September, New York made some changes to prevent future problems like this one – though bumping rights, generally, remains in place.
U.S. Navy. Results of bumping can potentially be even scarier than a potentially unsuitable teacher. The Mare Island Naval Shipyard has employees in a number of skilled trades, each of which includes some people who are nuclear-trained and some who are not. When the shipyard needed to downsize, a few years back, there was the distinct possibility that at least one conventionally-trained employee would wind up in a job that called for extensive nuclear training.
The shipyard managers were concerned (justifiably, it seems to us – we don’t want untrained folks with their hands on stuff that can blow up). The issue went to court and after a great deal of wrangling the shipyard prevailed. The final decision came after it was demonstrated that the government had spent about $80,000 per person on the nuclear training that was vital to the job. “It’s hard to believe it came to that,” says Professor Wayne Cascio of University of Colorado-Denver’s business school, “but it did.”
San Francisco. When bumping cascades down through the ranks –with employee A taking employee B’s job, who takes employee C’s job and so on – the whole process can take many, many weeks. During this time, uncertainty and inefficiency reigns. “Citywide bumping is hugely disruptive to operations, and all the more disruptive depending on positions. One person could essentially displace three to four other people,” says Jennifer Johnston, chief of policy for San Francisco’s department of human resources, “Unfortunately in the city, it is an unfettered right to displace others.”
San Francisco workers who actually wind up without a job, after the bumping process has run its course, end up on a so-called “holdover roster” for up to five years. During that period of time, these former employees continue to get health benefits, and San Francisco is required to offer them any vacancies that come up for which they are eligible with bumping rights.
That means the city is handcuffed when it comes to building a realistic recruitment strategy or helping current employees advance up their career ladders. Moreover, it has a stable of former employees out there who are collecting health benefits for up to five years with no requirement to work.
Of course, San Francisco may be somewhat extreme. In fact, the precise nature of bumping rights varies from city to city and state to state. In some places, for example, managers can choose not to take on employees trying to bump into a job, as long as they can present a good business case demonstrating why the new employee isn’t an appropriate fit. Elsewhere, managers have somewhat less discretion.
Gwinnett County, GA. In instances where bumping rights are more extreme, they’re not just a problem for managers, but for the employees as well. “In one department we went three rounds with the bumping,” says Kenneth Poe, director of human resources in Gwinnett County, Georgia. “It is a horrendous process for employees to go through. They find out that in the first round they aren't impacted, but then someone above them has decided to bump. That makes them upset. Then you have the next person who has gone quite some time thinking they survived the reduction in force and then they find out they got bumped in a later round. It is just not right to the organization or to the employees to have them go through the situation"
In 2008, bumping was eliminated in Gwinnett County, when managers made a concerted effort to communicate its problems. (Their path may have been eased by the fact that the county’s employees are not unionized.) Says Poe, “We were able to demonstrate how that adversely impacted the organization in managing the process. It was a huge business interruption and morale buster."
Bump Bumping? Meanwhile, and this feels like the last straw, in many instances bumping can mean that entities save far less than they originally thought they would by reducing workforce. For example, in the federal government, a person who bumps down one level continues to retain their original salary for two years. What’s more, without effective workforce planning, governments often refill the positions that were vacated a few years later.
Ironically, the men and women who are supposed to benefit from bumping – those who keep jobs with the government by bumping someone else out of their job – are often not so happy. Mastery of a job is one of the greatest incentives to work hard and well, we’re told (the other two being autonomy and purpose, according to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us). And an employee, who gets a new, lesser job and is unprepared, takes a giant leap away from mastery.
“Today’s managers need to manage this issue,” argues Professor Cascio, who maintains that the more moderate versions of bumping could be a huge improvement. “There should be modified bumping rights,” he says, “where you have to demonstrate that you have the qualifications and experience that you can perform the job you are bumping someone else out of. From a productivity perspective that is pretty basic"
Image courtesy of Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net