The numbers are penny-ante, but that’s not the point.

Bonuses awarded to federal employees who’ve had disciplinary issues present an image problem for Uncle Sam and fuel a narrative that undermines the workforce.

The latest example comes from a Social Security Administration (SSA) inspector general report this month that found the agency paid performance awards worth $145,000 to 240 staffers who had been disciplined for misconduct. Considering Social Security’s $12 billion budget and its 60,000 employees, the bonuses averaging $604 dollars to the wayward workers are barely noticeable.

Not only are the awards to the delinquents a minuscule part of the agency’s budget, SSA says they represent less than 1 percent of the total awards issued.

But awards to offenders look bad and raise skeptical questions from members of Congress protecting taxpayer interests. And though the numbers are tiny they take on added significance when coupled with other federal agencies that rewarded employees with scarred records.

Just last month, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) blasted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for bonuses given to agents who were disciplined after attending sex parties with prostitutes in Colombia.

“It is a disgrace that taxpayer dollars are being wasted on those who violate our trust and abuse their positions,” Chaffetz said when the DEA report was issued last month. “If we want a culture of excellence in the federal workforce, we must penalize bad behavior and reward merit.”

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation, argues an employee’s entire record should be considered when disciplinary action is contemplated. Chaffetz “should consider what was documented in support of the awards issued,” Adler said, “and recognize that the allegations of misconduct did not render those accused as useless.”

Penalizing bad behavior and rewarding merit in the federal workplace are at the top of the agenda for many who think the government’s current pay and reward system is out of touch with today’s needs. The appearance of rewarding bad behavior does not aid the case of federal labor leaders, who argue the current system is basically fine, but managers don’t operate its reward and punishment levers properly.

Already, Congress has considered legislation that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to revoke bonuses paid to workers involved in the VA’s wait list scandal. An Internal Revenue Service bill would prohibit “funds for bonuses or to rehire former employees unless employee conduct and tax compliance is given consideration.”

In the Social Security case, 126 employees were rewarded with an Exemplary Contribution or Service Award (ECSA) or a Recognition of Contribution (ROC) after getting a reprimand, 113 after a suspension and one was demoted.  The awards were granted in fiscal year 2014 for performance in 2013.

Perhaps the poster child for the incongruous award of the year would go to the employee who received $325 after being suspended 45 days for possessing a weapon, “being rude and discourteous to the public and management” and a lack of candor.

Social Security paid the 113 who were suspended $62,000 in bonuses. They included 26 employees suspended for more than one reason, including one worker suspended for two months. The inspector general found individuals awarded:

  • “$1,755, after SSA suspended the employee 14 days for providing information regarding a claim to an improper source.”
  • “$1,430, after SSA suspended the employee 10 days for falsifying a timesheet.
  • “$800…after SSA suspended the employee 60 days for certifying false evidence resulting in the issuance of a Social Security number and for acting on the records of relatives and friends.
  • “$650 . . . after SSA suspended the employee 5 days for making 21 unauthorized transactions on his Government credit card. The credit card bill was 45 days overdue, and the employee owed over $1,300.”

The report noted that “SSA told us the 240 employees it disciplined for conduct issues were in good standing when they received their award.” It urged officials to consider revising their awards policy to “specify the types of conduct that would prevent individuals from receiving awards.”

That would need union consent for staffers in bargaining units. SSA would have violated its contract with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) had it withheld bonuses from 34 employees who are union members. “We are currently in the process of reviewing our award policies. Any changes to the award programs will likely require us to fulfill bargaining obligations with our unions,” said Nicole Tiggemann, a Social Security spokesperson.

Witold Skwierczynski,  AFGE’s Social Security Council president, is open to that discussion. “I am not opposed to consideration of some restrictions of awards for certain individuals who have been disciplined,” he said, “if the misconduct is connected to the award.”