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Federal Employment Law
Common Reasons for Disciplinary Action for Federal Employees

When you’re a federal employee, even a single disciplinary action can be enough to leave you without a job or a future career in government.

That’s why employees need to understand the unique structure of the federal government’s employee discipline system and the typical behaviors that can trigger penalties. 

In this blog post, we’ll explain how discipline works for federal employees, outline some common reasons for disciplinary action, and discuss what to do if you’re facing an employer’s sanction.

Types of Federal Employee Disciplinary Actions 

The disciplinary process works differently for federal employees than for private-sector workers. Under federal employment law, disciplinary action refers to a formal penalty issued against an employee by their agency. The federal Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is the main body that regulates and enforces these sanctions.

Individual agencies may also take additional adverse actions against employees who fail to meet standards of conduct or performance. However, different procedural rules may apply in those situations. 

Let’s look at the four types of disciplinary actions federal employees can face. 

Letter of Reprimand

A letter of reprimand is a formal notice from your employer intended to document an issue with your behavior or performance. Although it generally doesn’t impact your pay or status, a reprimand letter will be on your employee record. Unlike the other disciplinary actions, your boss doesn’t have to give you advance notice before it happens. 


Suspended federal employees can’t work or receive pay. Suspension can be temporary (e.g., one week or one month) or indefinite. Employees may also be banned from using other employment privileges during this period.


A demotion generally reduces rank, grade, or pay level within the federal system. In some cases, demotion could also involve reassignment to less favorable tasks as punishment for wrongdoing or misbehavior. 


It’s a common myth that federal employees can’t be fired. Unfortunately, this is far from true. Although termination is saved for the most severe cases of federal employee misconduct, it does happen. Unlike in the private sector, terminating a federal employee is generally an extended administrative process. Federal employees typically can’t be removed with a valid reason or “cause.” Employees also have the right to appeal through the MSPB

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Reasons for Disciplinary Action Against Federal Employees

The reasons for federal disciplinary actions generally fall into two categories: performance issues and misconduct. 


As in the private sector, many performance-related situations could lead a federal employee to experience disciplinary action. Examples can include:

  • Failure to meet basic job expectations,
  • Carelessness or negligence in job duties,
  • Repeated mistakes or errors,
  • Safety violations,
  • Excessive lateness, and
  • Unauthorized work leave.

If the problem is severe enough, any of these could be a valid reason for a federal employee to lose their job. However, your agency will generally give you a reasonable opportunity to remedy your performance issue before removing you entirely.


Misconduct generally happens when an employee intentionally violates a rule, policy, regulation, or standard of conduct expected of federal workers. Common examples of misconduct that can lead to an employee disciplinary action include:

  • Misuse of government funds;
  • Insubordination;
  • Refusal to follow instructions or orders from superiors;
  • Falsifying records or withholding critical information;
  • Abuse of government property (e.g., vehicles, computers, cell phones);
  • Disrespectful conduct toward supervisors;
  • Workplace sexual misconduct;
  • Substance abuse or related offenses;
  • Unauthorized outside employment;
  • Breaching security clearance; and
  • Ethics violations (e.g., accepting prohibited gifts).

This is not an exhaustive list. Many other purposeful violations of federal regulations can result in employee disciplinary actions. The specific action you’ll face depends on numerous factors, including the nature of your wrongdoing, your job role, and your disciplinary history.

What to Do About a Proposed Disciplinary Action at Work

Unlike private-sector employees, federal workers generally have the right to respond to and potentially reverse any proposed disciplinary actions. Here are some steps you can take if you’re facing employer sanctions:

  • Ask for reasons and evidence. You have the right to understand the allegations you’re facing. The notice document will provide the reasons for the proposed discipline, and you have the right to review the evidence on which the charges are based. 
  • Prepare a response. You typically have the right to defend yourself in a written or oral response to your agency’s allegations. If you need more time to prepare, ask for it.
  • File an appeal. Federal employees suspended for more than 14 days, demoted, or terminated can appeal with the MSPB. The deadline for an appeal is 30 calendar days after you receive your notice.

Federal employees facing disciplinary actions also have the right to representation from a lawyer. An attorney trained in federal employment law can provide valuable guidance when dealing with a proposed disciplinary action.

A legal professional can review the charges and evidence against you and help you prepare a strategic response. They can also represent your case if you file an MSPB appeal.

The Legal Advocate Federal Employees Trust  

Receiving notice of a proposed disciplinary action can be confusing and intimidating. However, federal employees facing employer disciplinary actions still have rights. If you’re reeling in the wake of an employer’s sanction, contact the Federal Employment Law Firm of Aaron D. Wersing PLLC.

Attorney Aaron Wersing has spent years helping government workers understand and exercise their unique rights as federal employees. He’s helped hundreds of clients combat illegal retaliation, reverse suspensions, and resolve numerous other employment disputes. Contact our office today to learn more about how he can help you.

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Aaron Wersing, Attorney at Law

Aaron Wersing is the founder of the Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing. Mr. Wersing graduated from the Georgia State University College of Law with a Doctorate in Jurisprudence and was the recipient of the CALI Excellence for the Future Award. Mr. Wersing previously attended the University of Georgia, where he received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Accounting. Mr. Wersing is an active member of his local community. Mr. Wersing acts as a volunteer attorney with Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the pro bono legal aid organization of the Houston Bar Association. He is also a member of professional legal organizations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association and the American Inns of Court. To reach Aaron for a consultation, please call him at (833) 833-3529.

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