Whining on the Internet? Some Feds Find Expressing Opinions Can Have Consequences

Internet blogs or posting services are a great way for people to communicate. But words are a powerful tool and one person’s well-founded complaint may just be unjustified whining to another reader. One group of federal employees found out how the internet may impact their working lives and their job security.

The internet can be a very powerful tool. When we use this new tool, we are experimenting. We may not know or appreciate how powerful the internet can actually be.

This portal gives anyone with a computer and an internet connection the ability to post opinions on the web for the rest of the world to see. It even gives some aspiring reporters or experts in a narrow field the ability to challenge mainstream news sources. Well-known personalities from former President Bill Clinton to CBS broadcaster Dan Rather have experienced this power as large numbers of people used the web to challenge or defend the actions of public personalities.

The internet sometimes demonstrates how insulated and myopic an individual or group can be. Often, people with very similar views use the internet to reinforce existing beliefs. Others, who are not part of the group, often see the musings of this group from a much different perspective. It is not always well-known news reporters or politicians that can be impacted by the power of the new technology.

Here is one example.

A federal employee at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico set up a “blog” in a couple of hours while sitting at a fast food restaurant. A blog is a relatively simple way of posting ideas on the internet. It is often a daily journal written by one person or a group of people in a very informal style. In this case, the blog was for employees at the Los Alamos lab to voice their opinions about what was going on at the laboratory. It was apparently very popular and got a lot of use by the federal employees at the facility.

Los Alamos has been under fire for a variety of problems from mismanagement of resources to violations of national security. And, when the employees at Los Alamos began to voice their opinions on the internet, they may not have realized how their opinions and complaints would be viewed by people who did not work there.

According to a report on National Public Radio, the blog drew more attention and generated a reaction much different from what those posting their complaints (or the blog founder) may have expected. The comments did not generate sympathy for a group of ill-treated federal employees.

Potential contractors to run the facility found the delination of problems and complaints interesting, perhaps in support of a future bid to take over the contract to run the facility.

Congressional representatives also found it interesting. Parts of the blog were read in hearings on Capitol Hill. But the employees filing their complaints in the internet in this way probably did not expect to see their comments given as reasons for closing down the facility.

But that is what happened. One member of Congress referred to the complaining posted on the site as a “high school” level of complaints. Another member of Congress thought the blog demonstrated problems at the lab could not be fixed. In other words, the complaining employees wanted to vent their feelings and, presumably, create a work environment that was more favorable. Instead, people reading it from outside the lab saw it as low level, unprofessional whining by employees which could potentially lead to the closing down of the lab.

There are several potential lessons to be learned from this.

At FedSmith.com, we sponsor a site that allows postings from a large number of people and they take advantage of this. We don’t know who is reading the postings but we have months where the site has in excess of 4 million hits so readers can (and should) assume their posting may be read by anyone in the world.

There is no doubt that these posted comments are viewed by people who are not employees of the executive branch in the same way as “outsiders” viewed the postings of employees at the Los Alamos laboratory. That is, many of the postings will come across to others as low level, unprofessional whining by people who do not appreciate the benefits and working environment provided to federal employees.

One reader, who is apparently not a federal employee, recently sent me an e-mail on the topic. I did not retain the e-mail but the gist of it read like this. “Having perused your site recently, I am shocked at the whining and complaining of our nation’s civil servants. Poor supervisors? Pay for performance? Lack of job security? Those of us who pay taxes to provide the high salaries and excellent benefits of federal employees would love to have the pay and benefits and job security of these complainers that we are giving them as taxpayers. Having read a few pages of these losers whining, I hope President Bush contracts out the entire executive branch. America would be better off without them.”

Comments from readers are anonymous. The vast majority of these postings are from federal employees. Many or even most readers have similar self-interests. We eliminate some postings that are profane or attack another individual. But general complaints (or whining in the view of some) are there on the internet for anyone to see. Diatribes, rants, and generally obnoxious behavior is on full display as well as the articulate, well-thought phrases posted by those who have given some thought to their comments before sending them out into the world.

When you post comments, remember the lesson from your colleagues at Los Alamos. Words have meaning and they have an impact. Many of our readers have worked in the government for many years. They may not appreciate how others, including those who pay taxes to fund all federal agencies, will react to complaints or comments from federal employees about poor working conditions, low pay or incompetence of others in the federal workforce. That does not mean your opinion is unfounded or should not be posted. But think about what you are saying before you hit “submit.” You should treat your comment as one that you would be willing to stand behind and be willing to defend.

Remember Los Alamos.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47