Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Evidence-Based Change in Public Job Security Policy: A Research Synthesis and Its Practical Implications

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Evidence-Based Change in Public Job Security Policy: A Research Synthesis and Its Practical Implications

Article excerpt


For most of the 20th century, public employers granted their employees high levels of job security. The 21st century has brought a reversal of fortunes, with emphasis increasingly on at-will employment systems. Both distant and recent policy choices about job security have been based largely on normative and ideological considerations rather than behavioral science evidence. This article synthesizes public- and private-sector job security research to provide a more evidence-based footing for future public job security policy. Although changes related to job security are global, our attention is primarily on the United States. The article reviews job security research with origins in organizational behavior research, at-will employment research, and institutionalization and public trust research across sectors. Based on the review of the literature, we develop an integrative model of job security. We highlight practical implications that flow from the model and discuss future research needs.


job security, job insecurity, at-will employment, employee work attitudes and behavior

Job security is a concept of enduring importance in public administration and public management. In his History of the U.S. Civil Service, Paul Van Riper (1958) identified "security of tenure" as one of three defining attributes of the new federal civil service at its inception in 1883 (p. 100). As Van Riper noted, the job security rules introduced in the United States were not novel. They were rooted in the British civil service, from which U.S. civil service reformers borrowed liberally.

The key rationale for introducing full tenure into the British civil service in 1853 was to eliminate patronage in the appointment of permanent officials (Gladden, 1954). Prior to the advent of the career service model, all civil service appointments in Britain were filled through a long-standing system of political patronage, to meet some personal or political obligation, and usually with little consideration for the appointee's merits (Colley, 2004,2006). As scholars noted that "there was little employment security, as each new government sought to employ its own supporters, often at the expense of existing employees" (Cohen, 1965, p. 38-41; Colley, 2005a, p. 142; Colley, 2005b, p. 153; Gladden, 1954, p. 144). Under the British career service model, with the publication of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report (1) in 1853, a politically neutral public service was recruited on merit, and given tenure to encourage frank advice without fear of dismissal due to the whims of newly elected governments (Butler, 1993; Colley, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Northcote & Trevelyan, 1853). The United States drew on the British civil service model to draft rules for competitive examinations for hiring and promotions (R. N. Johnson & Libecap, 1994). The passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883, which was partly prompted by recognition in the United States of accomplishments of British civil service reforms, guaranteed relative security of tenure for employees through the appointing authority, which would not be able to discharge employees from the competitive examination process for any political reason (Battaglio, 2014; Van Riper, 1953).

The architects of U.S. civil service reforms could not have anticipated how widely their modest job security provisions would diffuse in the United States. What began as the right for a small percentage of employees grew to encompass most federal employees and, by act of state legislatures and city councils, large portions of state, local, and special district employees. The diffusion of job security was facilitated by court decrees, too (see, for example, Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois', Meier, 1981). Perhaps as important as the widespread diffusion of job security provisions in the United States is the broad acceptance of similar practices throughout much of the world, some of them driven by U. …

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