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Employment with the Federal Government is governed by laws which go above and beyond what is required for the private sector. Congress has established principles that are designed to make sure that similar work receives similar pay, across the entire government.

 The Merit System Principles are nine basic standards governing the management of the executive branch workforce. The principles are part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and can be found at 5 U.S.C. § 2301(b), which is quoted below.

The Pendleton Act of 1883 replaced the political patronage system that had existed until that time with a merit-based system for filling most civil service positions. The drafters of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 believed that this merit-based system had broken down over the ensuing century. Thus, they codified the merit principles and created a new agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board, as the "vigorous protector of the merit system."

 Consult the sub-topics from the menu to your right to learn more about how the Merit System Principles are implemented throughout the Federal Government using Pay Plans, Pay Grades, Job Series, and Locality Pay differentials


(b) Federal personnel management should be implemented consistent with the following merit system principles:

1.Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.

2.All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition, and with proper regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.

3.Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with appropriate consideration of both national and local rates paid by employers in the private sector, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.

4.All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.

5.The Federal work force should be used efficiently and effectively.

6.Employees should be retained on the basis of adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.

7.Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.

8.Employees should be--

A. protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and

B. prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.


9.Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences--

A.a violation of any law, rule,


Over 70 percent of the Federal workforce is paid according to the General Pay Scale (GS).The scale can be difficult to understand for both new and even experienced Federal employees.

 The nearly 30 percent of the Federal workforce not covered under the General Scale are either paid hourly under the Federal Wage System (FWS) system (10 percent), or operate under the separate systems of the U.S. Postal Service, the Foreign Service, the Veterans Health Administration, and Senior Executives.

 Every job in the Federal Government is classified according to its Pay Plan, its Grade (01-15), and its within-Grade Step (01-10).

General Schedule
(GS)The General Schedule includes the majority of white collar personnel (professional, technical, administrative, and clerical) positions. The GS was enacted into law by the Classification Act of 1949, which replaced a similar act of the same name enacted in 1923. The GS is now codified as part of Chapter 53 of Title 5 of the United States Code sections 5331 to 5338 (5 U.S.C. §§ 5331–5338). The intent of the GS is to keep federal salaries equitable among various occupations and between men and women ("equal pay for equal work"). The Office of Personnel Management administers the GS pay schedule on behalf of other federal agencies.

 Changes to the GS must normally be authorized by either the president (via Executive Order) or by Congress (via legislation). Normally, the President directs annual across-the-board pay adjustments at the beginning of a calendar year after Congress has passed the annual appropriations legislation for the federal government.

 The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA) provides for an automatic annual across-the-board adjustment of GS pay rates. A common misconception is that the annual federal pay adjustments are determined according to cost of living fluctuations and other regional considerations. In fact, the across-the-board adjustments to the GS (but not locality pay) are determined according to the rise in the cost of employment as measured by the Department of Labor's Employment Cost Index, which does not necessarily correlate to the better-known Consumer Price Index, which tracks consumer prices.

 Each Federal job is given a specific rating (Grade) from one to fifteen depending on the amount of education and experience required for each position. While there is no specific correspondence between the GS rate and each position’s educational requirements, Bachelor’s degrees are usually required for GS-5 positions, and Master’s degrees for GS-9.

Federal Wage System (FWS)
Before the FWS, there was no central authority to establish wage equity for Federal trade, craft, and laboring employees. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the former Civil Service Commission to work with Federal agencies and labor organizations to study the different agency systems and combine them into a single wage system that would be sensible and just. President Johnson called for common job-grading standards and wage policies and practices that would ensure interagency equity in wage rates. He established two basic principles for these policies and practices: Wages will be set according to local prevailing rates, and; there will be equal pay for equal work and pay distinctions in keeping with work distinctions.

 Congress established the FWS by law in 1972. It created a joint labor-management Federal Prevailing Rate Advisory Committee (FPRAC) with an independent Chairman. Agencies and labor unions are members of the Committee. FPRAC studies all matters pertaining to prevailing rate determinations and advises the Director of the OPM on appropriate pay policies for FWS employees.

 The Federal Wage System (FWS) is a uniform pay-setting system that covers Federal appropriated fund and nonappropriated fund blue-collar employees who are paid by the hour. The system's goal is to make sure that Federal trade, craft, and laboring employees within a local wage area who perform the same duties receive the same rate of pay. The FWS includes 132 appropriated fund and 125 nonappropriated fund local wage areas. Successful labor-management partnership is the hallmark of the FWS, with labor organizations involved in all phases of administering the pay system.

 Under this uniform pay system –

◾Your pay will be the same as the pay of other Federal jobs like yours in your wage area, and
◾Your pay will be in line with pay for private sector jobs like yours in your wage area
Senior Executive Service (SES)
The Senior Executive Service consists of the men and women charged with leading the continuing transformation of government. These leaders possess well-honed executive skills and share a broad perspective of government and a public service commitment which is grounded in the Constitution. The keystone of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the SES was designed to be a corps of executives selected for their leadership qualifications.

 Members of the SES serve in the key positions just below the top Presidential appointees. For protocol purposes, SES positions correspond to flag officers (e.g., generals, admirals) in the military. In general, SES members are the major link between the Presidential appointees and the rest of the Federal (civil service) work force. At the executive level, they operate and oversee nearly every government activity in approximately 75 Federal agencies.

 The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) manages the overall Federal executive personnel program. OPM Staff provides the day-to-day oversight of and assistance to agencies as they develop, select, and manage their Federal executives.

 Unlike the General Schedule, SES pay is determined at agency discretion within certain parameters, and there is no locality pay adjustment.

 The minimum pay level for the SES is set at 120 percent of the basic pay for GS-15 Step 1 employees ($119,554 for 2010). The maximum pay level depends on whether or not the employing agency has a "certified" SES performance appraisal system.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the government department responsible for managing payments and benefits for all federal employees. It guarantees fairness in compensation by using the same pay tables for all jobs in a particular area. These tables generally divide wages into grades, which depend on an employees experience and education. Within each grade are steps, which represent periodic increases that move workers closer toward the next level.

General Schedule (GS) Standards & Grades

 The General Schedule employs Grades to ensure that similar work receives similar pay. Grades are determined (classified) by comparing the work done to one or more official Standards.

The majority of position classification standards are developed by OPM and are applicable to occupations common to many or all Federal agencies. Standards for positions existing in one or a few agencies may be developed by OPM, or by a lead agency, under the guidance of OPM. All position classification standards are formally issued by OPM and distributed by the Government Printing Office, through subscription, to Federal agencies and other subscribers. Published standards remain in effect until they are abolished or replaced by OPM.

Classification standards usually include a definition of the kind of work covered by the standard; background information, such as descriptions of typical kinds of assignments found in the occupation(s) covered and definitions of terms; official titles; and criteria for determining proper grade levels. Some standards, usually referred to as series coverage standards, do not contain specific grade level criteria and refer the user to other standards or guides for grading guidance. Some broad standards are issued as grade level guides, which provide criteria for determining the proper grade level of work in a number of occupational series. There are a number of possible ways of presenting, for purposes of analysis and classification, the essential characteristics of work. For this reason, classification standards and guides have different formats and include a variety of evaluation elements.

For a more complete understanding of the content and use of classification standards in determining grade levels, please consult the OPM document, Introduction to the Position Classification Standards.

By factoring in the relative difficulty of nine areas of concern (work knowledge, level of supervision, detail of guidelines, complexity of work, impact, personal contacts and purpose, physical demands, and work environment), a determination can be made regarding the difficulty of the position, and, therefore, the appropriate pay grade level (01-15).

The GS-01 through GS-07 range generally marks entry-level positions, while mid-level positions are in the GS-08 to GS-12 range and top-level positions (commonly front-line or mid-level supervisors, high-level technical specialists, or physicians) are in the GS-13 to GS-15 range. A new GS employee is normally employed in the first step of their assigned GS grade, although the employer has discretion to, as a recruiting incentive, authorize initial appointment at a higher step (other agencies may place the employee at a higher grade).

Within-Grade Steps

 Each General Schedule (GS) grade has 10 steps. Within-grade increases (WGIs) or step increases are periodic increases in a GS employee's rate of basic pay from one step of the grade of his or her position to the next higher step of that grade.

WGIs apply only to GS employees occupying permanent positions. "Permanent position" means a position filled by an employee whose appointment is not designated as temporary and does not have a definite time limitation of 1 year or less. "Permanent position" includes a position to which an employee is promoted on a temporary or term basis for at least 1 year.

Employees who occupy permanent positions earn WGIs upon meeting the following three requirements established by law:
◾The employee's performance must be at an acceptable level of competence. To meet this requirement, an employee's most recent performance rating of record must be at least Level 3 ("Fully Successful" or equivalent).
◾The employee must have completed the required waiting period for advancement to the next higher step.
◾The employee must not have received an "equivalent increase" in pay during the waiting period. (See 5 CFR 531.407.)

Required waiting periods for within-grade step increases can be found on the OPM website .

In addition to WGIs, Federal employees may also qualify for Quality Step Increases (QSI). A QSI is a faster-than-normal WGI used to reward employees at any GS grade level who display high quality performance. To be eligible for a QSI, employees must:
◾be below step 10 of their grade level;
◾have received the highest rating available under their performance appraisal system;
◾have demonstrated sustained performance of high quality; and
◾have not received a QSI within the preceding 52 consecutive calendar weeks

In both the General Schedule (GS) and Federal Wage System (FWS), types of work are grouped together based on similar functions, skills and knowledge.

 In the General Schedule, related occupations are organized numerically into Occupational Groups within the same multiple of 100. The occupations perform similar work and have similar sets of responsibilities.

 In the Federal Wage System, occupations are grouped into Job Families, which are related in one or more ways: similar work functions, similar materials or equipment worked on, transferable skills and knowledge among occupations. 


 Series defines a subgroup of an occupational group or family that includes all classes of positions at the various skill levels for a particular type of work. Each series is assigned a specific 4-digit numerical code for identification and human resource management purposes. Positions within a series share similarities with respect to subject matter and basic knowledge and skill requirements.

 A code for any Federal job is made up of the Pay System, Series, and Grade related to that position. For example, a highly-skilled human resources specialist would could have the following position code: GS-0201-12. The chart below provides a complete reference to both the General Schedule and Federal Wage System job series.

Click here


The authorization and payment of post allowance is governed by the provisions of Chapter 200 of the Department of State Standardized Regulations (DSSR). Post allowance is a cost-of-living allowance granted to full-time employees officially stationed at a post in a foreign area where the cost of living, exclusive of quarters costs, is substantially higher than in Washington, D.C. Part-time, intermittent, and U.S. family member winter/summer hire employees are not eligible for post allowance. The post allowance is paid to eligible full-time employees even though they may not be eligible for LQA, post differential or other allowances. Post allowance is non taxable income.

Position Descriptions (PD) for government jobs come in multiple formats for different purposes. Some are for recruitment while others are for establishing requirements and expectations for an individual once they are employed. Each document serves a critical purpose in an individual government employee's personnel file and career.


For Marine Corps personnel, as well as the Federal Workforce at large, it is imperative that agencies clearly communicate performance expectations and work responsibilities. Through active performance management, supervisors should work constantly with their employees to ensure clarity of expectations and goals.

The foundation of this process, and the main avenue for agencies to communicate expectations to personnel, is the Position Description (PD). A PD is a statement of the major duties, responsibilities, and supervisory relationships of a position. In its simplest form, a PD indicates the work to be performed by the incumbent in the position.

Position descriptions are more than just a list of duties. They are used for many purposes: to use to recruit to fill the position, to define the employee’s duties in the workplace, justify his or her salary; and to determine awards and even promotions. It’s not hard to see that how a Position Description is often the basis for most personnel actions from hiring to promoting to firing.

Your PD should be provided for you when you check in with your new office, and your Supervisor can provide you specific information regarding how it relates to your role and responsibilities.

Every Position Description contains a combination of factors that determine the nature and difficulty of the position. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) lists a number of critical factors that should be addressed in some way in every PD. Here are the factors:
*Introduction: a statement of the primary purpose of the position and its relationship to the organization
*Major Duties: briefly describes the major duties performed
*Knowledge Required: what kind and level of knowledge and skills are needed and how they are used in doing the work
*Supervisory Controls: how the work is assigned, what the employee's responsibility is for carrying out the work, and how the work is reviewed
*Guidelines: the kind of guidelines used in doing the work and how much judgment is needed to use them
*Complexity: the nature of the assignment, what the employee considers when deciding what must be done, and how difficult and original are the employee's actions or responses
*Scope and Effect: the purpose of the work and the impact of the work product
*Contacts: the level of authority with which this position has job-related contacts
*Purpose of Contacts: dealing with people who are skeptical, uncooperative, unreceptive, or hostile; or, settling controversial issues or arriving at compromise solutions with people who have different viewpoints, goals, or objectives
*Physical Demands: how often and how intense the activity is and should include any physical characteristics or special abilities needed
*Work Environment: describes the physical surroundings in which the employee works and any special safety regulations or precautions that the employee must observe to avoid mishaps or discomfort

[Click Here] to read the chapter of the (OPM) The Classifier's Handbook describing in detail the elements that make up a good PD.

While PD-based classification actions (regarding Series and Grade) are often made at the agency level, standards for PD’s are established by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). 

For information about the Human Resources Office that provides classification support for HQMC, please visit the Staffing and Classification website.