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Federal Civil Service Employment Law: A Beginner’s Guide

This guide provides a brief history of the federal civil service and a list of treatises, statutes, reports, and websites that will help you begin your research on federal civil service law.


Image showing aerial view of Washington, D.C, with the Washington Monument on the left and the red-tile roofs of the Federal Triangle government buildings ahead
Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. Aerial view of Washington, D.C, with the Washington Monument on the left and the red-tile roofs of the Federal Triangle government buildings ahead. 2008. Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

White collar, civilian federal service employees work in one of three services, known as the Competitive Service, the Excepted Service, and the Senior Executive Service. These employees generally serve in the executive branch of government. This guide will enhance your legal study of federal civil service employment by noting the statutes applicable to each service. These employment statutes, with their corresponding regulations, govern federal civil service employee appointments, pay, appeal rights, anti-discrimination/whistleblowing protections, veterans’ preference status, insurance coverage, unionization, and retirement.


For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal workplace operated under a “spoils system,” whereby employees were hired, promoted, demoted, or terminated based on their political affiliation. The spoils system fostered continual upheaval in executive branch operations. An 1883 federal law, the Pendleton Act, intended to eliminate the spoils system by creating a civil service based upon employees who performed well on competitive examinations and secured appointments to available government positions.

President Theodore Roosevelt concentrated on ending the spoils system while expanding the civil service. As historian Lewis L. Gould observed in The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, ”the classified civil service positions that were subject to competitive examination grew from just over 46 percent of the total government service to 66 percent.”

In recognition of President Theodore Roosevelt’s civil service advocacy and vigorous implementation, the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was named “The Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building."

The modern merit system was shaped by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA). The CSRA created four agencies that share civil service responsibilities: the Office of Personnel Management, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and the Office of Special Counsel. The CSRA placed the authority to adjudicate federal sector equal employment opportunity complaints under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The CSRA also established Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices. The nine Merit System Principles serve as the foundational principles for federal civil service laws and regulations. The fourteen Prohibited Personnel Practices provide guidelines for federal employees who are responsible for personnel decisions.