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Federal Employment Law
conduct unbecoming charges

There’s an almost endless number of disciplinary charges that you can face in the government.

Together, these various charges cover almost the whole range of possible behaviors that justify disciplinary action.

However, federal agencies will sometimes use the more general charge of “conduct unbecoming” against employees for situations not specifically covered by other rules. 

Facing this charge is tricky because the legal analysis has a couple of unique wrinkles.

We’ve prepared this article to help equip you with the information you need to understand this charge and craft a solid defense.

That said, if your federal employer charged you with unbecoming conduct, contact one of our outstanding MSPB attorneys immediately.

What Is Conduct Unbecoming for an Employee?

“Conduct unbecoming” has a simple definition: any behavior that your employer believes negatively affects your work.

Thus, in contrast to most disciplinary charges, conduct unbecoming is a non-specific charge. This has some potent legal implications. For one, it means that the charge has no specific elements.

All your employer has to do is show that you committed the alleged conduct and that the conduct negatively affected your employer in some way.

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has previously tried to give some definition to the phrase “conduct unbecoming of a federal employee,” saying that it must somehow be “unattractive” or create “an unfavorable impression.”

But there’s an obvious problem here. Not everyone will agree on what creates an unfavorable impression.

For instance, your neighbor might find it offensive for you to listen to hip-hop music in your garage, even though most people have no problem with it.

Unfortunately, this inherent ambiguity allows bad actors to use this charge to persecute federal employees for illegal and discriminatory reasons. 

Examples of Conduct Unbecoming 

Fortunately, the MSPB often reviews cases involving allegations of conduct unbecoming a federal employee. Let’s review these examples to get a sense of what this term actually means in real-world situations.

In 1992, the MSPB affirmed the agency’s charge of conduct unbecoming after an employee killed a deer with his government vehicle.

A few years later, the MSPB upheld a conduct unbecoming charge against an employee who spoke to one of his subordinates in a physically intimidating and threatening way.

The charge has also been successfully used against a supervisor who sexually harassed co-workers and other agency employees.

Therefore, your agency might use that charge against you for things like swearing in the workplace or pranking a co-worker. 

What Do I Do If My Employer Charges Me with Conduct Unbecoming?

There’s actually a wide variety of strategies you can use to defend yourself against a charge of conduct unbecoming.

First, you can contest the underlying behavior. In many cases, this is the easiest strategy to pursue because it saves you the need to argue about whether the behavior was actually “unbecoming.”

Alternatively, you can attack the charge on due process grounds by arguing that the accusations are too vague to allow you to defend yourself.

When you read the proposal letter, check whether your agency included the following:

  • What the exact behavior was,
  • The specific date and time you allegedly committed the act,
  • The location of the incident, and
  • Who witnessed or experienced the behavior.

If the charge is missing one or more of these elements, then you may be able to mount a successful due process defense.

You can also defend yourself on due process grounds if your agency doesn’t let you respond to the charge or fails to show you the evidence it relied upon.

Finally, you can defend yourself by asserting that your agency is taking action for discriminatory or harassing reasons. 

Whatever defense you think might be best in your case, you should consult a qualified federal employment attorney right away.

Let Us Give You the Legal Service and Service You Deserve

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of your federal career. If your employer successfully charges you with conduct unbecoming, it can leave a black spot on your record that can torpedo your future opportunities.

Don’t let that happen. Instead, defend your rights and clear your name. 

If you’re defending yourself against any kind of federal discipline, don’t go it alone. Let the Federal Employment Law Firm of Aaron D. Wersing PLLC be your guide.

Our dedicated team is here to ensure that you’re safeguarded against any conduct unbecoming charges and that your employer respects your rights as a federal employee.

We recognize the immense contribution federal employees make to our nation through public service. Consequently, it’s our priority and passion to help you uphold the integrity of your career.

Because of our deep-rooted commitment to supporting federal employees, we proudly offer complimentary initial consultations.

So don’t hesitate to reach out for the assistance you deserve. Connect with us today by calling us or reaching out online.

Author Photo

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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