The Appropriate Use of Employment At-Will in County Sheriffs’ Departments

Published date01 September 2014
Date01 September 2014
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18tD4eSaJJIRp7/input 500319ROP34310.1177/0734371X13500319Review of Public Personnel AdministrationGoodman et al.
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2014, Vol. 34(3) 199 –217
The Appropriate Use of
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
Employment At-Will in
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X13500319
County Sheriffs’ Departments:
Employment At-Will or
Political Patronage?
Doug Goodman1, P. Edward French2, and
Tonya T. Neaves2
This study reports survey results of one state’s county sheriffs’ experiences and
attitudes toward employment at will (EAW). We developed a model that tests survey
respondents’ attitudes concerning when political interference in the employment
process is permissible and when it is prohibited. We find that sheriffs who agree
on the “spoils-system” uses of EAW have stronger agreement on when political
terminations are permissible and when they are not. Sheriffs who inform job
applicants that their employment is at will are knowledgeable about when political
appointments and terminations are appropriate and when they are not. County
sheriffs who terminate employees for politically based reasons misunderstand when
political appointments and terminations are prohibited under EAW principles. We
conclude with recommendations for public officials who work in EAW environments
to avoid liability associated with EAW.
political patronage, at-will employment, sheriff’s department, human resource
1University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, USA
2Mississippi State University, Starkville, USA
Corresponding Author:
Doug Goodman, School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences, Program in Public Affairs,
University of Texas at Dallas, 800 W. Campbell, GR31, Richardson, TX 75080, USA.

Review of Public Personnel Administration 34(3)
In November 2007, roughly one fourth of all Mississippi county sheriffs were turned
out of office or chose not to run for reelection. Each election historically comes with
turnover among deputy sheriffs and other staff in sheriffs’ departments. Following an
election, it is not uncommon for newly elected county sheriffs to terminate sheriff
deputies and other sheriff’s office employees over political support or lack thereof
during the election. In Mississippi, as with several other states, deputies and other
sheriff department employees work at the will and pleasure of the county sheriff
(Mississippi Code of 1972 § 19-25-19 1972).
In one Mississippi County, a candidate vying for county sheriff addressed the
department’s personnel prior to the election. The candidate initially said that whoever
wanted a job, would have a job under his administration if he were to be elected.
However, as the discussion progressed, he qualified his requirements for individuals
who wanted to work for him. He told employees that if they “chose to get involved in
politics by attacking him or his family or decide to work openly for his opponent then
that choice would have consequences.” He continued,
If you’re carrying a torch for my opponent, I may not have a place for you. Now you wanted
it straight, I’m giving it to you straight. . . . Now, if you want to support my opponent then
get up and walk out right now.
Reportedly, a dozen or so people walked out of the meeting. The candidate contin-
ued speaking to those who remained: “If anyone out there was wearing [sic] . . . [his
opponent’s] shirts and putting up signs for him, he will not have a job for them, if
elected.” The candidate continued with, “If you’re going to play in politics you gotta
[sic] live and die by the sword, just like I do” (Pittari, 2007, p. 2).
The origin of the civil service system in the United States emerged from the need
for a competent and professional administration democratic system (Bowman, 2002;
Schanzenbach, 2003; Van Riper, 1958). Proponents for reform realized the spoils sys-
tem often resulted in inefficiency and corruption; thus, ensuring politically neutral
expertise within the public workforce would lead to administrative continuity, compe-
tence, and innovation (Maranto, 2001; Moynihan, 2004). Implementation of civil ser-
vice systems across all three levels of government has been piecemeal over the last
century as the debate regarding the responsiveness of a politically neutral, tenure-
secured public workforce has continued since its inception. As a result, the reservation
of many senior-level management positions for political appointees has continued.
There have been dramatic administrative reforms over the past two decades, which
have focused on decentralization, deregulation, managerial flexibility, and perfor-
mance management. These reforms have positioned the civil service system and job
protection at the center of the public management debate (Fredericksen, 2010;
Goodman & Mann, 2010; Goodman & French, 2011; Moss, 2005). Deregulation of
government personnel systems has been suggested and implemented to improve dif-
ficulties in the traditional civil service system, such as underserved tenure, the reward-
ing of seniority rather than merit, and certain difficulties associated with employee

Goodman et al.
discipline (Coggburn, 2000; French, 2009; Muhl, 2001). Proponents suggest that
employment at-will (EAW) enhances government’s efforts to make their employees
more accountable for performance and eases legal restraints on the termination of
public employees, who are poor performers or have discipline problems. However, the
impact of the expansion of EAW on employee and managerial attitudes is of consider-
able concern (Kellough & Nigro, 2005), and the debate as to whether reforms based on
private sector approaches offer significant opportunities for higher levels of govern-
ment performance is ongoing (French, 2009).
In addition, at-will terminations without the protection of procedural due process
have attracted considerable attention from politicians, administrators, and the judicial
system. EAW is a common practice in public administration positions across the coun-
try, including sheriffs’ offices. The earlier vignette illustrates the temptation by elected
officials to link employment decisions with electoral outcomes. In 2007, there were
approximately 1,570 sworn and 1,815 civilian law enforcement personnel working for
country sheriffs’ offices in Mississippi (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008). There
is a real concern that political and partisan influences will creep back into the public
employment arena, especially in EAW environments in states and local governments
“where corruption in more common, party competition is limited, media scrutiny is
inadequate, and bureaucratic professionalization and unionization are less developed”
(Maranto & Johnson, 2007, p. 96). When does EAW move from a legitimate employ-
ment method to a form of political patronage that is illegal? How do elected officials
manage EAW without subjecting themselves to allegations of unconstitutional employ-
ment hiring or terminations? The purpose of this research study is fourfold. First, we
discuss the theoretical and legal frameworks that compose EAW and political patron-
age. Second, we describe current practices of employment in some at-will sheriff
departments. Third, we will evaluate the perceptions of county sheriffs in one EAW
state regarding the use of EAW in their respective departments. Finally, we make rec-
ommendations to help local governments better manage EAW.
While the data in the study are derived from one state’s elected sheriffs, the findings
have relevance for elected officials, local governments, and state agencies with at-will
employees in all 50 states as political patronage is not a problem solely unique to the
survey population. Valuable insight is gained regarding how the perceptions of elected
public officials can influence their employment decisions and ultimately their liability
in legal proceedings. Public officials must be keenly aware of their current, former,
and future employees’ rights and protections to safeguard themselves, their depart-
ments, and their governments from the liabilities that can arise in the area of employ-
ment law and wrongful employee termination (French, 2009).
Public Sector Employment Practices
Political patronage is the known support or aid an organization or individual bestows
upon another organization or individual. It is a social relationship or friendship con-
nection that occurs between a patron and a client. As a reciprocal-based system,
patrons use their influence to assist or protect clients who pledge their allegiance. In

Review of Public Personnel Administration 34(3)
many instances, patronage is used for the purposes of political advancement, in which
governmental resources are used to reward individuals for their unwavering electoral
support (Wilson, 1961). In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, patronage was per-
ceived as an administration by gentility and rose from early factionalism. Gentility
was seen as a customary practice to secure political loyalty and outweigh political
tactics or to balance competence with political neutrality. President George Washington
created governmental jobs in an ad hoc fashion and began the practice of staffing posi-
tions with family members, close friends, and political allies (Bearfield, 2009; Elrod v.
, 1976; Mosher, 1982; Van Riper, 1958; Vaughn, 1997). Some...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT