Politicians representing major federal job centers yesterday urged the government to seek alternatives to layoffs and, when they are unavoidable, to follow pink slip policies that are humane and rational.

During the first three years of the Reagan administration, more than 12,000 of 1.4 million white-collar civil servants were fired. Many more were transferred or demoted because of reductions-in-force (RIFs). Locally, RIFs cost the jobs of 2,900 of the area's 340,000 federal workers.

Most of the employes fired were nonveterans who were lowest on the seniority ladder. Women and minorities made up a high proportion of the RIF victims.

To answer criticism of the seniority-dominated layoff system, then director Donald J. Devine of the Office of Personnel Management developed new RIF guidelines. They would give greater protection to employes based on performance and less on seniority. Congress repeatedly barred OPM from putting the rules in effect. The most recent ban expires next month.

OPM proposed that a point system be used to determine who is fired. Under it, workers would get a point for each year of service plus additional points based on annual job performance ratings of "outstanding," "exceeds fully successful" or "successful." Point totals would be based on the three most recent performance appraisals of each worker in agencies facing RIFs.

Opponents of the OPM system say it gives too much power to bosses to protect pets (by giving them higher performance ratings), and to set up longtime workers (by giving them lower performance ratings) and then running a RIF.

The House Human Resources subcommittee heard from a number of interested parties yesterday: Constance Horner, the new director of the OPM; Rosslyn S. Kleeman, a top official of the General Accounting Office; several members of Congress, and organizations representing workers and managers.

Horner, who has indicated a willingness to negotiate over the performance-based layoff rules, said the administration's policy always has been to seek alternatives to layoffs. But she said that test runs of RIFs under the proposed new system showed that they worked fairly and satisfactorily.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said any RIF policy must protect employes with at least 12 years of service who are rated "fully satisfactory" from being out-pointed -- and fired -- before newer workers with better job ratings.

Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Michael Barnes (D-Md.) and Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) submitted statements urging employe involvement in developing alternatives to RIFs. Fazio said fear of layoffs has created a "confrontational" situation in many offices, and that performance ratings should be used to encourage workers to do better jobs, not to frighten them.

GAO's Kleeman said that the congressional watchdog agency's studies of recent RIFs showed that firings sometimes produce heavy short-term financial costs to the government because the government must pay severance, accumulated annual leave, job placement and unemployment benefits in some cases.