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Merit System Principles - An Overview

Merit System Principles - An Overview

Every State employee has heard that we are part of a civil service governed by the “merit principle” of the State of California. What exactly is that merit principle? Where is it written and what does it mean? This presentation provides a quick reference for answering these questions.


As State employees, we are all part of the “civil service”. In the civil service, the California State Constitution establishes that all appointments and promotions must be made based strictly on the employee’s ability to do the job, meaning on that person’s “merit”.

Civil Service and the Merit Principle

The requirement that only a person’s ability to do the job be considered when making decisions is known as “the merit principle”. The process of hiring and promoting people is called the “Merit System”. The two terms are often used interchangeably.


Factors other than the individual’s merit and job qualifications, like political affiliation, ethnicity, and gender for example, may not be considered when making hiring and promotion decisions in California civil service.

Laws and History

Civil Service Act (1913)

The Legislature passed this act to combat the “spoils system” where most state jobs were doled out based on the applicant’s political allegiance or personal relationships.


The Civil Service Act of 1934

The original law wasn’t working. Close to half of the available jobs were still being filled based on factors other than the individual’s qualifications. So, the voters approved a new civil service law to replace the version from 1913. The basic provisions of that 1934 initiative are still in effect today.


Added a provision to the California Constitution stating that the civil service includes every officer and employee of the state with very limited exceptions. “In the civil service, permanent appointments shall be made under a general system based on merit ascertained by competitive examination.” This provision was added to the California Constitution and is called the “cornerstone” of the merit system.

The purpose of the Act is to promote efficiency and economy in State government. Established a Civil Service Act within the Government Code, with statutes establishing the process of civil service examinations, appointments and promotions. The Civil Service Act also established a five member State Personnel Board to administer the Civil Service Act which includes the provisions in the Constitution as well as many chapters of the Government Code.

Civil Service Act and the State Personnel Board

As a result of the Merit Principle and the Civil Service Act: Process of filling job vacancies focuses on the requirements for successful job performance. Once you know what a job requires, you can develop job related tests and avoid any “non job related” factors in the hiring process.

Focus on Successful Job Performance

When we hire and promote for State jobs we make decisions based on the individual’s ability to do the job, and nothing else.

Decisions Based on the Merit Principle

“The California civil service selection system is a merit-based system. The basic tenant of the State’s merit system requires that individuals hired into and promoted within the civil service be selected on the basis of their job-related qualifications and that such selection decisions be free of illegal discrimination and political patronage.”

State Personnel Board Describes the Merit Principle

The merit system includes: An employee becomes permanent in the civil service only after completing all three elements: Competitive Examinations meaning applicants are rated and ranked against one another based on assessment of their ability to perform in a job classification.

Implementing the Merit Principle

Selection Processes for particular vacancies that measure each applicant’s ability to perform the duties of the particular job that’s available. A probationary term and reporting process that tests the employee’s actual on-the-job performance.

Equal Employment Opportunity

As a practical matter, EEO laws, including laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment in the workplace, impose the same requirements as the Merit Principle—that a person be hired and supervised in accordance with their ability to do the job and without regard to any personal attribute. But EEO laws are grounded in the Equal Protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions along with Civil Rights laws.

Parallel Laws

Even though the roots of these requirements are different, as a practical matter when we make hiring and promotion decisions in a way that serves the merit principle, we are also respecting EEO requirements because the focus is on the match of the applicant’s abilities and the job requirements, and nothing else.


All of these features of the merit system ensure that appointments to state jobs are made in a way that is objective, impersonal, and equitable, and tie the job’s requirements to the individual’s skills. No more, no less. That’s the merit principle!

For More Information

Visit the State Personnel Board’s website at or keep browsing CalHR’s website.

  Updated: 12/18/2012
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