Shutdown Roulette

The press is filled with reports of a pending government shutdown and what the political effects may be. Who will be blamed? Republicans? Democrats? All of them? With all of the focus on the politics, it is probably a good time to look at some of the effects on the real world of government.


If a shutdown occurs, some employees will be sent home. Others who are doing law enforcement, health, safety, security and other work that is deemed essential to safety and health will stay on the job. Others whose work is funded by fees, permanent appropriations or other non-apprpriated sources may also keep working. Essential for shutdown purposes is not the same as essential for weather or other emergencies. Every agency has developed and is most likely updating their shutdown plans. When I was Chief Human Capital Officer for DHS, in 2011 we developed shutdown plans for the Department that outlined who would continue working and why. The Washington Post did a great article following that shutdown near-miss and described the 2011 shutdown plans for most agencies. It is still available on the Post’s website. On September 23, DoD issued shutdown guidance to its workforce, including OPM’s 2011 guidance on  shutdown furloughs. DoD’s Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service also issued an excellent Q&A.

Other than those whose work is funded by non-appropriated dollars, there may be no means of paying the employees who must continue to work. If a shutdown continues beyond a pay period, people may be working but not getting paid until after the shutdown is over. Refusing to work during that period is not an option – employees who are told to report for work must comply or face disciplinary action. Those who are required to report cannot take leave. The reason for being exempt or excepted does not extend to sick or annual leave, or to holidays. For those who are not working, pay for the shutdown days is not guaranteed. In the past, the Congress has voted to make those employees whole, but there is no requirement that they do so. Employees who are sent home because of a shutdown will have to rely on the good will of the Congress.

HR Offices

At the headquarters level HR offices are actively engaged in shutdown planning. That means they are helping update the plans, responding to employee questions, and dealing with the logistics of notifying employees of their status as exempt (source of money) or excepted (type of work) from being sent home, or subject to being sent home when the shutdown occurs. They have to look at vacancy announcements that may close during a shutdown and decide whether to extend closing dates now. There may not be a choice in cases where collective bargaining agreements require announcements to be open for a minimum number of business days. That could lead to delays in filling jobs after the shutdown is over. There are also issues to deal with regarding people who plan to retire while the shutdown is in effect, employees who are injured on the job, training that is contracted for and scheduled, and countless others. HR is working with the Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer (usually the Deputy Secretary), the General Counsel, OPM, OMB and the agency head to communicate with the unions and keep them up to date on what is happening. In 2011, some agencies wanted to do the communications with employees and unions earlier than they did, but had to wait for clearance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do so. OMB was hesitant to provide clearance, in part because of the likelihood the Administration would be accused of planning for a shutdown rather than trying to work with the Congress to get the budget standoff resolved. The truth is they absolutely had to do both. Not planning for a potential shutdown would have been grossly irresponsible. This year the planning appears to be more transparent and guidance is more readily available.

Quick Reference Guide to Determine Exempt and Excepted Positions

I’ve been asked by a number of people if there is such a guide. The answer is no. Each agency has to make decisions regarding positions that are exempt or excepted, following guidance from OMB and the Department of Justice. DoJ issued an opinion in 1995 that shows the complexity of the decision-making process. There are so many issues to consider that each agency or department has to review its own positions and make those decisions. While some are easy, many are judgment calls and the agency responsible for the work is in the best position to make those decisions.

The Value of Shutdowns

One thing we learned in the 2011 shutdown drill was the futility of it for Federal agencies and the taxpayers. We consumed millions of dollars planning for something that is a Constitutional responsibility of the Congress and the President. We produced no benefits for taxpayers, didn’t make our borders more secure, didn’t improve national security, didn’t protect the environment, or anything else constructive. We planned because we had no prudent option to do otherwise. Productive work was diminished or stopped, and nothing came of it. As leaders in agencies that had real work to do, my colleagues and I found it maddening. People who are in government today are saying the same thing about the precious time and resources they are being forced to expend on a wasteful exercise. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Just substitute shutdown for life in this quote:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Let’s hope the idea of shutting down the government has its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

Performance Management – Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged?

This is first of a series of posts on the issue of individual performance management.

I have to start with a confession. I am an HR person and I intensely dislike most performance review processes I’ve seen in the past 35 years. Almost without exception, they add little value and, in many instances, do great damage. The lack of clarity regarding why the ratings are being done and the disconnect between the organization’s rhetoric regarding itself and how it views people are enough to make any review process risky. Add to that the canyon that lies between our perceptions of ourselves and how others view us, and we have a formula for a destructive exercise that not only fails to add value, but actually does demonstable harm.

My mother taught me from the time I was a small child that I should not judge other people. She quoted the biblical admonition (Matthew 7:1) to “Judge not, lest ye be judged” and said people who judge others are judged by those same people. If religion isn’t your thing, just plain old good manners tell us we shouldn’t go around judging people. So how do we make that a reality in the HR world? We set out to not only judge people, but to build entire systems around judging others. We consume countless hours writing standards, asking people to rate themselves, and rating them. We make decisions about employment (do I keep my job), pay raises, bonuses, and job assignments. Every HR person I know tells me we do it because we have to. In fact, the Federal government is required by law to do it.

Sec. 4302. Establishment of performance appraisal systems

(a) Each agency shall develop one or more performance appraisal
systems which –
(1) provide for periodic appraisals of job performance of
(2) encourage employee participation in establishing
performance standards; and
(3) use the results of performance appraisals as a basis for
training, rewarding, reassigning, promoting, reducing in grade,
retaining, and removing employees.

If the government and most employers are going to require performance evaluations, we need to do it in a way that makes sense. For any rating process to make sense, it has to take into account one simple, yet very profound fact: Most people are above average. Well, not really, but they are in their own perception of themselves. There has been extensive research on self-perception that finds there is a surprisingly common type of cognitive bias called illusory superiority. That’s a fancy way of saying we think our strengths are greater than they really are and our weaknesses are less than they really are. Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion includes the news from Lake Wobegon, “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” The description of Lake Wobegon is funny, but it also describes a very real phenomenon concerning how most people view themselves. What makes it worse is the fact that many of the least capable have the highest opinions of themselves. At the Defense Logistics Agency, we did extensive data anlysis on our employee surveys and multi-source feedback done on supervisors. We found the bottom 25% of supervisors rated themselves at about the same level as the top 25%. The direct reports, peers and bosses of these “delusional supervisors” gave them very low ratings. The top 25% of supervisors tended to rate themselves lower than their peers, direct reports and bosses rated them.

Imagine the response when you give one of the bottom performers a low rating. They believe they are outstanding. You believe they are anything but. Everyone around them shares your view. That reality drives home the benefit and the peril of performance ratings. Any rating process that assumes people are aware of their shortcomings is likely to fail. Any rating process that assumes everyone is fine with being rated as average or acceptable, or satisfactory, or any other middle-of-the-road descriptor, is destined to fail.

Why did I title this post “Judge Not Lest Ye be Judged?” One of the big concerns many in government and the private sector have is how leaders are perceived by rank-and-file employees. We design rating processes that tell people their view of themselves is dead wrong. And we are surprised when they don’t praise the process or us??

The next few posts in this series will address how to start the process of designing an evaluation system, how to design one that avoids the problems with the Lake Wobegon Effect, how to implement it, and what to do once you have it in place. I look forward to sharing them, and to your comments.