How much job security do federal "Excepted Service" attorney positions have?

The federal civil service is noted for having excellent job security for the people already employed; civil servants get tenure after three years and can appeal dismissals or demotions to a review board.

But what about the “excepted service” positions in the federal government, in particular, “attorney advisers”? (I see lots of those jobs advertised on USAJobvs). They can technically be fired at any time; are they in practice as secure as regular civil service?

Generally speaking, your “rights” as an excepted service employee are limited compared to the competitive service. To answer your specific question, you probably need to make contact with an attorney adviser in that type of position.

Early in my career I held various excepted appointments. While my employer has the authority to terminate my employment prior to the completion of the appointment, I can recall only one time that authority was exercised against someone (out of several hundred excepted service appointments I was familiar with at the time). (In this particular case the excepted employee had created several egregious acts that even with counseling and second chances, never resulted in a positive behavior change.) FWIW, any federal agency that desires to separate an excepted service employee will generally follow the same process as if they want to terminate a status (competitive service) employee. It would be done this way to ensure the rights of the employee are fully respected and that during the termination process all the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed so as to prevent later repercussions against both parties. (No agency in their right mind desires to terminate an employee, if there will be residual issues. It really does come down to dollars and sense. The cost to the government arguing the particulars after the fact are best mitigated by transferring the problem employee to where they can do the least damage and serve out their excepted appointment. At that point they are terminated and that’s that.)

Terminating a federal employee gets easier with the seriousness of the violation, regardless of their appointment. Yes, it’s a misnomer that you cannot fire a federal employee. It happens all the time. Again, the particulars of their position, the agency, and the violation would all play a part. For example, being rude to a taxpayer might not seem like a big deal (it really is even in this time of generally rude people) but the deal is bigger if you job involves regular contact with the public, as opposed being in a position where such public contact is rare.

I agree. My wife works for the federal government, and her agency fires people all the time.

Her agency has various metrics and performance goals that employees and the whole office are required to meet. The goals are not trivial, either. My wife is one of the best employees in the office, and she still finds the goals to be very challenging and high-pressure. When she was still learning the job, she had a great deal of difficulty meeting her numbers, which is apparently pretty typical.

Employees who fail to meet their numbers are put on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Those who don’t meet the requirements of the PIP are terminated. While there is a union and a review process for terminated employees, if the termination is due to performance issues, there’s very little that can or will be done.

Her office recently forced a guy to retire who had worked there for decades, but whose performance had supposedly declined in the last year or so.

They also have a fairly long two-year probation period in which it is even easier to fire a new employee. My wife sees a lot a new employees who apparently have the mistaken impression that federal service is a cushy job. They are quickly disabused of that notion. Those who don’t get the message quickly enough get fired. Of six new hires in the last year, only two are left, for example.

Based on this statement, it sound like your wife’s agency follows a different hiring system than the competitive service. Federal employees hired under competitive service serve their first year under a one-year probationary period within their three year career conditional appointment.