Probation: It’s the Working Test, Stupid!


In Los Angeles, the City’s Board of Civil Service Commissioners is vested with the power and duty to make and enforce the civil service rules. But for reasons known only to Mayor Villaraigosa and his friends, the Board is not allowed to enforce the probation rule, cited here.
Sec. 1.26. Probationary period means the working test period during which an employee is required to demonstrate his/her fitness by the actual performance of the duties and responsibilities of his/her position and during which he/she may be terminated without right of appeal to the Board of Civil Service Commissioners.
Civil service is a merit system. Employees are selected on the basis of their qualifications. The relative qualifications of applicants are determined by examination. And while passing job-knowledge tests and getting high interview scores may predict job effectiveness, it does not ensure it. Thus, before the Pendleton Act could pass the U.S. Senate, it was amended to require a working test, probation. Since 1883, probation has been the final test in the selection of public employees.
But would the enforcement of Rule 1.26 change employee selection in Los Angeles? Yes. It would make three major changes: 1) it would require new hires to demonstrate their fitness; 2) it would require that probationary appraisals be job-specific and performance-based; and 3) it would require that poor-performing probationers actually be removed. *
This is how civil service should work in Los Angeles. But one gets the impression Mayor Villaraigosa doesn’t care all that much about making civil service work. He violates the City Charter and allows Appointing Authorities to ignore Rule 1.26. He defends the use of probationary ratings that affront common sense, and lets departments make retain-or-remove decisions on the basis of invalid trait lists.
In a July 18, 2007 Personnel Department survey, 19 City departments reported using Form PDAS-28 for probationary ratings, and 17 departments rated probationers on their own forms. In each of those departments, all probationers—regardless of their job class, regardless of their assigned duties—are rated on a single trait list. And it’s likely that all those ratings would be vulnerable to legal challenge.
Trait lists used in some City departments require supervisors to define, and set minimum standards for, abstract factors like character, initiative, attitude, personality, etc. Such ratings have not fared well in court; they’re too subjective—too unreliable to be used as employment tests. Yet every year hundreds of employees are hired by those departments, and routinely added to the City’s civil service workforce.
The unvarnished truth is that, by letting Appointing Authorities hire civil service employees on the basis of invalid trait lists (including the recently revised PDAS forms and the “customized” forms used in nearly half the City departments), Mayor Villaraigosa is dumbing-down the City’s workforce. He’s jacking-up the cost of government. He’s forcing Angelenos to pay more than they should for the services they get from the City.
It’s time mayor Villaraigosa and his friends started playing by the rules!!

*Current termination rates are unavailable but according to a June 21, 2002 Personnel Department report “during a 10-year period, less than 1% of all employees were terminated during probation.”

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