Proposed changes in federal layoff rules -- linking job protection to performance instead of seniority--could make it harder for feds RIFfed in future to find other jobs in government.

The White House is considering revised reduction-in-force (RIF) rules that would deemphasize seniority and base layoffs on an employe's latest job performance rating.

Under the proposed RIF changes, agencies undergoing layoffs would make their first cuts from groups of workers with the lowest performance ratings. Seniority would be a factor only within that group. It would mean that a long-service employe with a lower job rating could be fired before a relative newcomer with a better performance appraisal.

Present RIF rules work just the opposite. Longtime workers are usually retained over less-senior colleagues even if the latter are rated as better.

Since the Reagan administration took office nearly 3,000 federal employes in metropolitan Washington have been RIFfed (and thousands more transferred or demoted) because of budget cuts. In most instances the last-hired people were the first fired. Senior employes who were hit by RIFs could and did "bump" less senior workers out of their jobs.

The Office of Personnel Management, which has proposed the RIF rules change, claims the government has a good batting record in finding jobs for the so-called displaced employes. But that was partly because agencies that took RIFfed workers did so because their only "crime" was being young, or having relatively short service.

But there is the chance that the proposed RIF changes--if the White House okays them--could work to "taint" future victims of RIFs.

"Look. If they ask us to take on somebody who has been RIFfed we look at the guy to make sure he doesn't have two heads. But we don't assume that just because he was RIFfed he is a loser," an agency personnel director said.

"But suppose the rules are changed and you know that the people who are getting RIFfed couldn't cut it in their agency. Or maybe they were okay but stepped on somebody's sensitive toes. Is that going to enhance their chances of getting on somewhere else?"

It is hard to find anyone who favors keeping incompetents--whether there is a RIF or not--even if they are senior incompetents.

This administration's emphasis on getting the best performance out of the folks in the federal establishment is commendable. Isn't it?

What worries a lot of federal workers, however, is the feeling that this administration--first in many years to run a RIF and seem, at times, to enjoy it--doesn't hold them in very high regard.

(Staffers at the OPM, which sets federal personnel policy, say that one of their politically appointed bosses didn't speak to any of the career people for the first three months).

Protecting the most competent from RIFs, and basing within-grade raises on performance rather than time-in-grade, seems like a very good idea. But performance appraisals--like fire or dynamite--can be a problem if used improperly.

Many of the groups--women and minorities--who have complained about the unfairness of the seniority system in government are balking, now that changes in that system are being proposed. Is it that they don't know their own mind? Or is it that they don't trust the people who want to make the changes?