Should We Beat on OPM Again? Nope.

iurFor folks in the National Capital Region (NCR), this has been an eventful week. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, usually referred to as Metro, shut down the entire metrorail system for an emergency safety inspection. The shutdown, coming with very little notice, was prompted by two fires and was the first non-weather related total system shutdown in Metro history.

To put it mildly, it was a big deal. Metrorail carries about 350,000 passengers during the average morning rush – roughly the equivalent of 35 lanes of freeway traffic. Without that transit capacity, the region’s highways and bus systems are simply not capable of handling all of the traffic. Even if they could, there is nowhere to park the tens of thousands of cars that would converge in downtown DC.

OPM had no real advance notice of the shutdown. They had to make a call on the government’s operating status for Wednesday, and according to some people, they got it wrong. So, the OPM bashing started again.

If you are OPM Director, there is no more thankless or miserable task than having to make these calls. There is no way –  none, zilch, zip, nada – that the decision will please everyone. If Beth Cobert decided to shut down the government, she would be criticized for wasting money. When she decided to put the government on an unscheduled leave status, meaning employees could take leave if they had it available, she was criticized for contributing to a traffic nightmare.

Let’s take a look at the options OPM could choose from.

Unscheduled leave/telework. OPM chose this one. It is the least costly and disruptive option available, because it assumes a large number of employees will choose to telework or go to the office. The majority of those who do not will use leave they have already earned. A small percentage with no leave might have to take leave without pay.

Delayed arrival. This option recognizes that conditions might not be right for people to drive to work. It is most often used for weather, where early morning conditions are expected to be bad, but as the day progresses they will improve. The metrorail shutdown was unique. It has never happened before and OPM had no information to conclude that a delayed arrival would be beneficial. In fact, one person I spoke with who is a transportation expert with extensive knowledge of NCR transportation issues, told me that the cumulative effect of traffic pouring into DC would mean that later arrivals would add to the problem. So – if OPM had chosen this option, they might have made the commuting problems far worse.

Shutdown. The preferred option for many Feds was to shut down the government in the DC area. The NCR is home to about 300,000 federal workers, but OPM’s closure process applies directly only to those inside the capital beltway. Nearby agencies often choose to follow OPM’s lead, but they are not required to do so. If we take the most conservative route to valuation of a closure, we can look only at the 160,000 federal employees in the District of Columbia itself. They have an average salary of $110,000 per year, or $421 per work day. So – the cost of a workday in the NCR is $67,500,000. Even if we take out the employees who might telework or have to go in to work because they are safety/security types, the cost is still tens of millions of dollars. Some would argue that is not a real cost, because the government is already paying those salaries. While it is not a direct cost, it is the loss of that much productivity, so it has the same effect as spending money. Most (141,000) NCR employees earn either 20 or 26 days of annual leave and 13 days of sick leave. Only 19,000 have less than 3 years of service and earn 13 days of each per year.

One piece of advice virtually everyone in government or elsewhere hears is that we should conserve time off and save some for emergencies. If we have an accident driving to work, have a home emergency, or have any other type of problem that keeps us from getting to work, we protect ourselves by having leave available. People who are early in their careers and earning less leave, or who have family or other issues that consume leave may not have that luxury, but those are, for the most part, exceptions.

So should OPM make a decision to spend $67 million because of those exceptions? Is it fair for federal employees to get a free day off when other employees most likely are not? There are a lot of arguments on both sides, but I think OPM made the right call on this one. Certainly not the popular call, but the one that was the right business decision for the taxpayers. It is hard to explain to a taxpayer why a federal worker earning $110,000 per year and up to 39 days of leave and 10 paid holidays should get an extra day off because of this type of problem. Every time this issue comes up, it is fodder for those who want to criticize the federal workforce and cut their pay and benefits. We already have too much fed-bashing going on and do not need to add fuel to the fire.

That does not mean there is nothing that can be done to help employees who may not have enough leave. In addition to requests for advanced annual leave, there is a provision in  5 U.S. Code § 6302(d) that says “The annual leave provided by this subchapter, including annual leave that will accrue to an employee during the year, may be granted at any time during the year as the head of the agency concerned may prescribe.” That means an agency could choose to routinely make the entire amount of annual leave that employees will earn during a leave year available on day one of the leave year. If agencies did that, employees who earn less leave or who have situations that require them to use leave would most likely have more leave available for unplanned absences when they occur early in the year. Very few agencies use this flexibility, but it is available in the law and it is negotiable (for those agencies with unions). It is certainly worth exploring whether it should be the default means of citing annual leave, rather than a rarely used exception.



If Only They Would Listen….

On March 4, the Office of Personnel Management announced the rollout of the 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The FEVS is intended to provide “Federal employees with the opportunity to provide feedback on their jobs, their supervisors, and their senior leaders.” When Government Executive posted a story about the 2016 FEVS, they used the headline – Feds: Tell Your Manager How You Really Feel — With No Repercussions.

That headline highlights one of the most important aspects of the FEVS – it is anonymous – but it also brings to mind a problem that I believe is far too prevalent in the federal government. Too many federal workers do not feel safe speaking honestly with their supervisors and agency leaders. The 2015 FEVS found that only 62.6% of federal workers agreed they could “disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” Only 58.5% agreed they “feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.” Those numbers may sound fairly good, but keep in mind there are over 2,000,000 federal workers. When 62% agree they can do something, that means there are 750,000 who either do not agree or have no opinion.

ICan We Talkn an excellent series of articles a few years ago on, the late Steve Oppermann wrote  about the reasons employees file discrimination complaints. Other than the obvious cases of overt discrimination, one of the most common reasons he cited, and that I have heard time and time again from employees and EEO practitioners, is that the employee felt there was no other safe way to vent their frustrations or raise their concerns. As a Chief Human Capital Officer and HR Director, and in earlier years doing work in staffing and labor/employee relations, I often saw evidence of the same issue. Some employees simply did not believe it was safe to have a conversation with the boss about an issue that was troubling. In my work with unions representing federal workers, I heard (and verified) countless horror stories about employees who had conversations with bosses who turned around and used the conversation against the employee. One of the most egregious was a case where an employee asked for an accommodation to seek treatment for alcoholism and the supervisor made notes of the conversation, then “accidentally” emailed them to the entire work group. Maybe it really was an accident, but the employee whose most personal information was revealed certainly did not think so.  Employees are not the only ones to fear the consequences of open conversations. Time and time again I have heard from supervisors who fear the consequences of being open about their opinions – whether to their direct reports or their own bosses.

So – what we are left with is a situation where the anonymity of a government-wide survey is the only way many employees feel safe in telling managers how they really feel. And many supervisors are afraid an open conversation with their direct reports will lead to a complaint, grievance, IG report, or other consequence.

I think that is sad. It is sad for the employee who feels like s/he has no voice in the workplace. It is sad for the supervisor who might be very willing to deal with a problem if s/he actually knew it existed or who would be happy to communicate with employees if s/he did not not fear the information would be used against them. It is sad for the agency that gets less productivity because employees do not feel they are able to be heard and supervisors fear the consequences of open communication. And it is sad for the taxpayers who pay good money for the government to do its work on their behalf.

Years ago, when I was in my first managerial job, I had situation that perfectly reflects the bad outcomes that result from the lack of open communication and the good outcomes that can happen when people really talk. A member of my staff had a reputation for being difficult (to say the least). She seemed to have a chip on her shoulder that would not go away. Her performance was acceptable, but not much better than that. She thought I (and every other leader in the organization) had it out for her. It came to a head when we had a performance rating discussion that went badly.

She told me she wished she could say what she really thought. Being young and naive and too stupid to know better, I offered a deal. She could say anything she wanted, however she wanted to say it, and I gave my word that there would be no repercussions. The flip side was that I could do the same and she would make the same promise. In the midst of a tense and thoroughly unpleasant conversation, we were both so fed up with the tension between us that we decided to take a leap of faith and trust that the other would keep his/her word.

I learned a lot. I learned how she believed the deck was stacked against her. How she had been treated badly by supervisors in the organization who assumed she was a “problem employee” who would always be unhappy and treated her accordingly. How she saw other, less experienced, people getting plum assignments that she had hoped to have a chance at. She told me how much she resented my privileged upbringing, and her view that everything had been handed to me while she had to fight for opportunities. When I told her that my “privileged upbringing” was growing up in a trailer park in West Virginia and that I resented her mistaken assumption that every decision supervisors in the office made was directed at her, something happened. We started having a real conversation between two people rather than a supervisor/subordinate. We spent the next couple of hours talking and getting to know one another and learning that we were both wrong, and that what we “knew” about the other was not at all true.

The result of that one conversation was that we had a lot more. We agreed to be open about what we were thinking. It turned out she was not an “OK ” employee. She was actually really good and was a lot of fun to work with. In the end, she not only got some of those plum assignments, I promoted her to a key customer-facing role where she did a great job. I grew to enjoy working with her very much. When I left the organization a couple of years later, we were hugging and crying. That would never have happened if two people had not had a conversation.

So – I think every federal employee should respond when the FEVS is released next month. But more than that, I think federal workers and their supervisors should talk with one another and listen a lot more. Maybe some of those conversations will go nowhere, but some of them will make a difference.