Most federal employees spend a year on probation after being hired, but being on probation apparently doesn't mean much, according to a new study.

The study, by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, found that 1.6 percent of civil service employees are shown the door in their first year on the job. After that year, employees are granted statutory job protections and almost no one (0.5 percent) is let go because of poor performance or bad conduct.

For the study, the board surveyed 600 supervisors in nine agencies and asked them whether they would hire the people who were on probation if given a chance to do it over. Some supervisors said they would select the same person again, and others would not.

But get this: More than half of the supervisors who said they would not hire the person again told the board they intend to keep him or her.

Inconsistent, wouldn't you say?

Comments collected by the researchers indicate that these supervisors did not see the probationary period as an opportunity to test and evaluate the new hire's skills and potential. One supervisor, for instance, called probation "just a formality" and suggested that only "a really bad employee" might face dismissal while on probation.

The employees on probation also have the impression that it is a formality. "It is my understanding that as long as you are not a screw-up, you will get through the probationary period," one new employee told the researchers.

These supervisors know the rules, by the way. More than 95 percent said they were aware that a person on probation is not a permanent career employee until the probationary period has ended, the study found.

"It is vital that supervisors make use of this period, because if there is a problem with someone, our data indicate that ignoring it is not likely to make it go away. Rather, delaying action beyond the probationary period makes it more difficult to take action," researchers reported in the study.

Over time, a problem employee "can affect the morale of the office, the effectiveness of co-workers, the reputation of the work unit or agency, and the ability of the organization to accomplish its goals," according to the study.

"The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity" was prepared by the board's office of policy and evaluation, led by Steve Nelson, and sent to the White House and Congress by board Chairman Neil A.G. McPhie and board member Barbara J. Sapin. Sharon Roth was the project manager for the study (available at www.mspb.gov).

There's no good estimate of how many problem employees -- those who slide through the day and don't pull their weight -- are in the federal government. It could be as low as 3.7 percent of the 1.8 million workforce or has high as 23.5 percent, studies from 1999 through 2001 showed.

As a general rule, many senior officials think that problem employees are relatively few. Still, the Merit Systems Protection Board study seems to indicate that agencies are not using the probation period to make sure they have hired the right people for the right jobs -- perhaps the most crucial judgment call in an era when specialized knowledge and analytical skills are increasingly important to the government.

When asked why they allowed problem employees to remain during probation, supervisors told the researchers that they feared being accused of discrimination or did not want to take on complicated dismissal procedures. Several also said "the culture" in their agencies did not permit immediate action.

Some personnel officials said they believed managers are reluctant to give up their "warm bodies," the study found. "Supervisors may be reluctant to give up a resource, no matter how flawed, if they have reason to believe they will not be allowed to recruit behind that person," according to the study.

The Merit Systems Protection Board is an independent agency that hears appeals from federal employees facing major disciplinary action and makes recommendations aimed at ensuring fair treatment of employees.

In the study, the board recommends that Congress amend civil service law to make clear that a federal job should not be an entitlement after one year. The study also suggests that Congress permit agencies to set a probationary period of one to three years, based on how difficult it is to evaluate an employee.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com