New RIF (reduction-in-force) rules covering thousands of career federal executives are in the works and due out in a couple of weeks. They will give in detail the procedures agencies must use in any layoffs involving $50,000-a-year members of the Senior Executive Service, and what (if any) appeal or reassignment rights the executives will have.

Many agencies are bracing for RIFs. Some top executive jobs will be eliminated. Most of the SES personnel live and work in the Washington area. If you aren't one yourself, your boss is.

Nobody knows how many rank-and-file workers, or SES members, will lose jobs because of program or budget cuts. Although rarely used, RIF procedures are well-established for the majority of civil servants. But the SES, a creation of the Carter administration, is new. It has never undergone a RIF.

Proposed executive RIF rules have been circulated to agencies for comment. There were lots! Many career officials said they gave management too much authority to boot out SES members who have less tenure than regular federal workers. Others -- Reagan appointees and some careerists -- said the appeal rights and job guarantees proposed for executives in a RIF would deny management flexibility and open up a legal can of worms during any executive layoffs.

The main areas of disagreement involve the "fall back rights" of SES personnel during a RIF, and what kind of appeal rights they would have when their jobs are abolished.

Internal memos from the Office of Personnel Management shed some light on the pro-and-con arguments to the proposed executive RIF rules. Legal types at the OPM said it would be "unwise" to require an agency to put a RIFed executive into any other vacancy for which the executive is qualified. The argument is that i could provide an "opening" for the Office of Special Counsel, Merit Systems Protection Board and courts to "second-guess agency decisions. . ."

The counterargument is that valuable executives, whose jobs are abolished through no fault of their own, should be offered other employment within the SES.

The second major problem involves proposals to guarantee SES members (all from the former Grade 16, 17 and 18 ranks) a "fall back" to a Grade 15 position, meaning they might bump a lower-level worker out of a job. OPM's legal office said Congress "did not envision providing SES members with this type of protection" although SES members who get poor performance ratings can fall back to GS 15 jobs. RIFs are different, the lawyers argued, and they involve more people.

Just over 7,300 SES jobs are filled, mostly by career people, and there are about 1,800 vacancies. Unless RIFs hit large numbers of executives, the guarantee of reassignment would mean that most of them could probably be placed since the SES has nearly 2,000 unfilled jobs. Political appointees, of course, do not have any job guarantees.

A final decision on SES layoff rules will be made by OPM Director Donald Devine and the White House. If they take a hard line, an executive-level RIF could push many SES top executives out the door. If appeal rights and fall back rights are liberalized, most displaceed SES personnel could probably find other jobs at their same level within the service and/or fall back to lower grade jobs without any immediate cut in pay. The rules will be out before the end of this month. There will be a lot of executive nail-biting until then.