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What is the Merit System?

The Merit System is part of New York State Civil Service Law, designed as a method of recruiting, appointing and promoting staff by allowing them to compete for positions based on merit and fitness -- wherever possible through a competitive examination process.

In 1883, New York State was the first state in the nation to implement such a system, which has proven to be a foundation of modern government, and for well over a century, merit and fitness has been the yardstick by which career State employees are hired and promoted. Through this system, public employees are chosen on the basis of their competence. The high standards envisioned by the system's founders are a reality today and hold bright promise for the future.

Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who later became President, was a firm proponent and moving force in the establishment of the merit system and it was during the tenure of Governor Al Smith that the Department of Civil Service was established to handle the functions of finding, developing and retaining the people best qualified to do the work of New York State's government.

In addition to providing the State with a trained, capable and motivated workforce, Civil Service plays a key role in assisting the Governor and the Legislature in developing human resource policies. In addition, the Department partners with the Office of Employee Relations in strategically planning for the workforce of tomorrow.


There are four types of examinations that the Department of Civil Service offers:

  • Open-competitive
  • Promotion
  • Transition
  • Continuous Recruitment

Open-competitive examinations are open to anyone who possesses the minimum qualifications as listed on the examination announcement. Although generally thought of as examinations that are “open to the public”, State employees are also eligible to take them if they meet the minimum qualifications.

Promotion examinations are open to permanently appointed State employees. There are two types of promotion exams, interdepartmental and departmental. Interdepartmental examinations are open to permanent qualified employees across agencies. Departmental promotion examinations are open to permanent State employees of a specific agency.

Transition examinations are open to permanently appointed State employees. They are used to allow State employees to “transition” from one career to another.

Continuous Recruitment examinations may be either open-competitive or promotional. They are used when there is a constant need to fill positions.

Eligible Lists

After an examination has been held, candidates who have passed are placed on an eligible list.

Candidates are placed on the eligible list in descending score order.

Candidates are selected off of the eligible list using the rule of three.

The rule of three means that agencies count down the first three people on the list. These three people plus anyone else at the third person’s score are the eligibles they can consider.

For example: Here is an eligible list:


Count down the first three people on the list. This brings you to Steve. Mary, Bill and Steve are eligible to be considered plus anyone else at Steve’s score, which in this case includes Mike. Therefore the candidate pool is Mary, Bill, Steve, and Mike.


When appointed off of an eligible list into a permanent position, employees will serve a probationary period. In general, the length of the probation period is six to 12 months.

Leaves of Absence

If you are currently a permanent employee and have been appointed from an eligible list, you may be entitled to a leave of absence from your current position.

There are two types of leaves of absence available to permanent employees: mandatory and discretionary.

Mandatory leaves of absence are those required by Civil Service Law or policy. Mandatory leaves are granted to employees who are:

  • promoted or transferred to a position in which they must serve a probationary period
  • appointed to a temporary, provisional, or contingent permanent basis to another position within their agency
  • absent for reasons specified in the Military Law
  • unable to perform the duties of their position due to disability

Discretionary leaves may be granted by an agency for up to two years and are at the “discretion” of the agency. Discretionary leaves may be requested for educational leave or to accept a provisional or temporary appointment in another agency.

When or if you return from a mandatory or discretionary leave, your rights are to the title you held in your agency and county of employment. There is no obligation on the part of the agency to give you your old job back.


A transfer is the movement of a permanent competitive class employee from a position in one title to a position in a different title or from a position in one agency to a position in another agency. Both positions must be within the competitive class. Transfers occur with the consent of the employee after nomination by the appointing agency and the approval of the Department of Civil Service. Approval by the agency from which the employee is transferring is not required in order for the transfer to occur.

To be able to transfer, employees must generally have had at least one year of permanent service in their current title or at their current salary grade. The transfer can be to the same or any lower salary grade, but cannot be to a title more than two salary grades (or one M grade) higher than their current title. Employees who are currently serving probation are eligible to transfer. Transfers may not be approved if mandatory reemployment lists exist for the title to which transfer is sought.

The Civil Service Law (CSL) defines three different kinds of transfers:

CSL Section 70.1 allows transfer without further examination from one title to another when a sufficient degree of similarity exists between the minimum qualifications, tests and/or duties of the specific titles involved. The appropriateness of transfer is decided on a title-by-title basis at the request of personnel offices of state agencies. This section of the law also allows employees to transfer to another agency in the same title.

CSL Section 70.4 allows transfer to a title which is not similar, but where the employee meets the qualifications for the title. Usually the employee must pass an examination open to the public for the title before transfer can be approved.

CSL Section 52.6 allows transfer between administrative titles at the same or similar salary grade. Administrative titles are those involving law, personnel, budgeting, methods and procedures, management, records analysis, or administrative research.

Visit Information for Employees Seeking Transfer for more details.


The CMO offers a workshop called Understanding the Merit System.

Workshops are held upon agency request. Agency Personnel Offices should call or e-mail CMO to request a workshop.