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Federal Employee Misconduct: Actions Needed to Ensure Agencies Have Tools to Effectively Address Misconduct

GAO-18-48 Published: Jul 16, 2018. Publicly Released: Aug 15, 2018.
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Fast Facts

Employee misconduct encompasses a range of behavior, including physical aggression towards a co-worker. The number of federal employees formally disciplined for misconduct is relatively small—less than 1 percent of the workforce, annually. But even a few cases can have a big impact on an agency’s morale and effectiveness. So, are supervisors addressing employee misconduct?

We found that federal agencies made 10,249 suspensions, 7,411 removals, and 114 demotions for misconduct in 2016.

We recommended that the Office of Personnel Management improve their tools for helping agencies prevent, identify, and address misconduct.

Number of Suspensions, Demotions, and Removals per Year, Fiscal Years 2006 to 2016

Bar chart showing around 10,000 suspensions each year, around 6,000 removals, and around 150 demotions.

Bar chart showing around 10,000 suspensions each year, around 6,000 removals, and around 150 demotions.

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What GAO Found

Chapter 75 of title 5 of the U.S. Code specifies the formal legal process that most agencies must follow when taking adverse actions, i.e., suspensions, demotions, reductions in pay or grade, and removals, for acts of employee misconduct. Chapter 75 details the built-in procedural rights certain federal employees are entitled to when faced with adverse actions.

Depending on the nature of misconduct, an agency may use utilize alternative discipline approaches traditionally used in government to correct behavior. Alternative discipline is an approach to address misconduct that is available to agencies in lieu of traditional penalties (e.g., letters of reprimand and suspensions of 14 days or less). An example is a last chance agreement, whereby an employee recognizes the agency's right to terminate him or her should another act of misconduct occur.

Based on the data collected by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), agencies formally discipline an estimated 17,000 employees annually under Chapter 75, or less than 1 percent of the federal workforce, for misconduct. Based on OPM data, in 2016, agencies made 10,249 suspensions, 7,411 removals, and 114 demotions for misconduct. However, because of weaknesses in OPM's data on employee misconduct, which is provided by the agencies, OPM is unable to accurately target supervisory training to address misconduct, and decision-makers do not know the full extent or nature of this misconduct.

Key lessons learned can help agencies better prevent and respond to misconduct. For example, tables of penalties provide a list of the infractions committed most frequently by agency employees, along with a suggested range of penalties for each to ensure consistent treatment for similar offenses. However, not all agencies have a table of penalties, including OPM, nor are agencies required by statute, case law or OPM regulations. Subject-matter experts we contacted identified additional promising practices that agencies can use to respond employee misconduct. Some of these are presented below.

Key Practices That Can Help Agencies Better Prevent and Respond to Misconduct

Senior Agency Officials Must Set Positive Conduct Examples (tone at the top)

Senior leaders must exhibit positive workplace behavior as an example to agency employees.

Additional Training Could Help Supervisors Identify and Deal with Misconduct

Conduct on-going training for supervisors and hold them accountable for addressing misconduct in a timely manner when it occurs

Internal Collaboration is Key to Effectively Address Employee Misconduct

Maintaining effective lines of communication and collaboration with the human resources office staff, line-level management, and agencies' legal counsel

Set Clear Expectations and Engaging Employees

Setting and communicating clear rules and expectations regarding employee conduct and assuring that employees conform to any applicable standards of conduct

Source: GAO analysis of expert testimony. | GAO-18-48

Agencies are accountable for providing required training to their managers. However, agency officials and subject-matter experts we interviewed said federal managers may not address misconduct because they are unfamiliar with the disciplinary process, have inadequate training, or receive insufficient support from their human resources offices.

Why GAO Did This Study

Misconduct is generally considered an action by an employee that impedes the efficiency of the agency's service or mission. Misconduct incidents can affect other aspects of employee morale and performance and impede an agency's efforts to achieve its mission.

GAO was asked to examine how executive branch agencies address employee misconduct. This report (1) describes the process agencies are required to follow in responding to employee misconduct; (2) identifies alternative approaches to the formal process that agencies can use and assesses what factors affect agencies' responses to misconduct; (3) describes trends in removals and other adverse actions resulting from misconduct; and (4) identifies key practices agencies can use to help them better prevent and address misconduct. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed relevant sections of title 5 of the U.S.C; analyzed MSPB and OPM data, and interviewed, among others, agency officials and subject-matter experts.


GAO recommends that OPM, working with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, (1) take steps to improve the quality of data collected on misconduct; (2) leverage lessons learned to help agencies address misconduct; and (3) improve guidance on training supervisors and human resources staff on addressing misconduct. OPM partially concurred with two recommendations, and disagreed with the first, stating that its guidance has been successfully relied upon by agencies. GAO maintains the action is needed to help strengthen oversight.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Personnel Management The Director of OPM, after consultation with the chief human capital officer (CHCO) Council, should explore the feasibility of improving the quality of data on employee misconduct by providing additional guidance to agencies on how to record instances of misconduct in OPM's databases. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Not Implemented
OPM disagreed and stated they will not take action to address the recommendation primarily for two reasons. First, OPM stated its governmentwide personnel action database does not record instances or forms of misconduct. Given the array of potential types of misconduct that may form the basis for management action, they told us it is not feasible for them to collect this information at an enterprise level. Also, OPM stated they did not want to create a comprehensive catalogue of forms of misconduct, which they thought would be needed to capture detailed misconduct data, because such an approach could expose agencies to the argument that any conduct that was not captured by OPM is not a permissible basis for discipline. OPM stated creation of such a catalogue may also have the unintended effect of inducing agencies to force charges into the predefined categories recognized by OPM rather than addressing the unique aspects of each instance of misconduct and tailoring discipline to the specific situation. We agree that these concerns raised by OPM could limit their ability to efficiently and effectively collect improved employee misconduct data in its databases, and as a result closed this recommendation as not implemented.
Office of Personnel Management
Priority Rec.
The Director of OPM, after consultation with the CHCO Council, should broadly disseminate to agencies the promising practices and lessons learned, such as those described in this report, as well as work with agencies through such vehicles as the CHCO Council, to identify any additional practices. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
OPM has taken steps to address this recommendation. OPM is using its Employee Engagement Toolkit for Supervisors, which contains some of the key practices and lessons discussed in our report, including how to develop plans to address conduct and performance issues quickly. In addition, OPM has communicated these strategies and approaches across the federal community through its partnership with the CHCO Council, posting these recommended approaches on its website, and through its ongoing outreach to agencies. For example, during calendar year 2020, OPM hosted nine conference calls with senior level labor and employee relations practitioners to discuss common labor relations and employee accountability issues, including misconduct. Further, OPM shared guidance highlighting issues agencies should consider when updating disciplinary policies or engaging in collective bargaining on disciplinary matters, such as potential challenges agencies may encounter when using tables of penalties and progressive discipline. As a result of its actions, OPM demonstrated that it has implemented this recommendation.
Office of Personnel Management
Priority Rec.
The Director of OPM, after consultation with the CHCO Council, should provide guidance to agencies to enhance the training received by managers/supervisors and human capital staff to ensure that they have the guidance and technical assistance they need to effectively address misconduct and maximize the productivity of their workforces. (Recommendation 3)
OPM partially agreed with this recommendation. In March 2024, OPM reported that it had taken several steps toward implementing this recommendation. In December 2023, OPM issued guidance to agencies on effectively using probationary periods. According to OPM, it is also updating an online supervisory training course and written guidance for supervisors and human resources staff on handling employee misconduct. OPM plans to finalize this guidance in Fall 2024. To fully implement this recommendation, OPM needs to complete its update of guidance on training supervisors and human capital staff on addressing federal employee misconduct and make this information available to agencies. Implementing this recommendation would enhance the guidance and technical assistance needed to effectively address misconduct and maximize the productivity of the workforce. We will continue to monitor OPM's progress.

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Disciplinary actionsEmployee demotionsEmployee misconductExecutive agenciesFederal agenciesFederal workforceGovernment employeesHuman capital managementInternal controlsLessons learned