Federal Leave Policies: Blessing or Curse? (Part Two)

Supervisors and managers are selected for their understanding and ability of the work not of people nor because they possess supervisory skills. Managing leave in the federal environment would be a challenge for anyone. Here is how “flexibility” can look to a federal manager.

Part One of this series looked at Federal leave and work scheduling programs available to employees. Great stuff, huh? I’d be the first to say that Federal employees are very fortunate to have the freedom to control where and when they work and to use approved leave to cover virtually any situation life may throw at them. This part of the series will look at all of this flexibility from a supervisor or manager’s perspective.

I wonder if Luther Gulick, who gave us PODSCORB (planning, organizing, directing, staffing, coordination, reporting, and budgeting) and is considered by many the most important theorist of public administration and management, could have predicted the complexity with which public managers must now deal in getting a job done. The Federal service, it seems to me, spends a lot of time on trendy performance evaluation schemes and annually conceived variations creating myriad structures but comparatively little time on the development of its supervisors to get the day to day work done.

I have spent an entire career amazed by the continual misunderstanding of Federal supervision by both political parties as they possess alternately or together the Congress and the administration. Clinton/Gore, the champions of the “reinvention” mantra did what most other “reformers” do, only more so. The Clinton/Gore reinvention geniuses pushed expansion of the ratio of supervisors to employees from whatever was is to 1 to 15 or 1 to 25.

After all, with automation and Dr. Deming to guide us, who needs managers anyway? They never got (very few have) that Federal supervisors and managers work. The reality in government is that supervision is usually a sideline job. Most are selected for supervisory positions because they either understand the work better or do it better than other contenders. An interesting euphemism “personally performed duties” (I guess as opposed to impersonally-performed tasks) has sprung up to identify these activities. Ask any supervisor what supervisory training or developmental activities they participated in before selection and almost all will say none. I honestly don’t know why anyone takes the job of first-line supervisor other than perhaps from the probably mistaken belief that they might have more control over their work. The difference in pay certainly isn’t worth the hassle.

The Premise

So let’s look at my premise. Supervisors and managers are selected for their understanding and ability of the work not of people nor because they possess supervisory skills. OPM used to mandate 80 hours of supervisory training for newly selected supervisors and first time managers but that went away with the evil Federal Personnel Manual which sought to provide consistent guidance to agencies on “human capital” (newest trendy name of personnel) management. So now you can become a supervisor without prior or post selection training. When I conduct supervisory training (in labor and employee relations), I ask who has had basic supervisory courses. Large numbers say they haven’t. If you buy my premise, then who’s surprised when managers and supervisors are extremely frustrated at having to get the work done in the face of an elusive workforce that is flexing, telecommuting, exercising FMLA rights, and otherwise isn’t very predictable in its availability. Even assuming that these programs were a good idea in the first place, managing them presents substantial challenges.

Ten Supervisory Responsibilities that Liberal Leave and Work Scheduling Make More Difficult.

1. Planning Work

Planning to put tab A into slot A is no big deal. Most Feds don’t deal with slots and tabs unless they are on case files, computer drives and the like. The government’s work is largely regulatory, financial, analytical or service-based. Before any supervisor can envision staffing a project management effort, an analysis of mission needs must be accompanied by matrix identifying who is available and on what days and dates. It gets more complicated when the interactions are with people who have no or a conflicting work or leave schedule.

2. Delegating Work

Delegation is an art not a science. Factors such as experience, ability, training, relationship skills and the like are part of the mix. Most supervisors rely on their knowledge of employee strengths and weaknesses in making these decisions. Trust is often a function of the depth of the relationship between people and the opportunity to observe interactions first hand. The less people interact, the less trust will result. You figure it out.

3. Developing Coworker Interaction

Trust isn’t only between supervisors and subordinates. A smooth and successful operation often depends on the relationship between coworkers. If people don’t interact frequently, information sharing and mutual interdependence either won’t develop at all or may be severely limited. While many meetings are poorly run, these interactions offer people the opportunity to assess coworkers. Meetings in a flexible environment can be difficult to engineer. Teamwork is a frequently advanced goal in government. If you’re not on the playing field, it’s tough to be part of a team.

4. Supervisor-Employee Interaction

Mentoring and coaching come to mind as important supervisory functions. Let’s think about doing this by phone or email exclusively. “nuff said.

5. Training

Whether supervisors are trying to schedule on-the-job training or formal off-site training, scheduling adds a complexity to the process. I’ve been in negotiations where the union wanted Byzantine rules established wherein, for example, an employee who works a 4-10 hour day week (got that?) gets overtime for the day they are usually off even if the week long class is only eight hours per day. This proposal was made with a straight face and reflected a belief that an AWS was a God-given right like sick leave.

6. Preparing Employees to Advance

Frequently supervisors seek to expand an employee’s horizons and understanding of the organization with details and developmental assignments. These often require scheduling adjustments which may clash with personal activities that come about as a result of the alternate schedule or leave use.

7. Rotational Assignments

Management has the absolute right to assign work and, at least according to Federal labor law, can’t bargain it away even if it wants to (Not apparent to Clinton appointees even on the FLRA). The real problem is that nobody wants to be the bad guy inconveniencing people by assigning work that requires them to rescheduled child care, elder care, medical appointments, beauty appointments, car repair and so on.

8. Office Coverage

Even mentioning this will relegate me to true dinosaur status. Not every Agency will have a 9/11 or Katrina crisis requiring the marshalling of massive efforts. Every agency does however have the obligation to provide within the same day, a real person to respond to real concerns of whoever the agency deals with. This gets hard even in an environment rife with voice mail, call forwarding, etc. The day will come, however, when a President decides that someone live must be available to help with agency provided services.

9. Customer Service

Please don’t laugh. There is a concept called civil service. I have had a number of union representatives tell me that they are absolutely not civil servants but rather government employees. I didn’t need to be told. I’d already figured that out. The Federal civil service without doubt should be held in as high regard as those Americans in the uniformed services. The oath is virtually identical. The duty is also identical. The politicals who run against us for votes and the media who revile us for sound bites have done great harm to the image of Federal employees. There is a way out and that’s to leave our customers, whether outside government or within, as thankful for us as we were for the first responders that morning in September. Perhaps we should consider putting our customers over ourselves believing that we are not a business but embody the public trust a very different kind of enterprise.

10. Evaluating Work

This difficult and thankless job is made more arduous by distance and lack of personal contact. It’s not really the people we need to look at in the long run but the quality of the work turned out. This is the ultimate missed point. I have witnessed failing work organizations hand out awards at the end of the year. More about this in the next article.

Here are some numbers to mull over. There are 260 work days in the year. An employee who has 15 or more years of service gets 26 of them off leaving 234. There are 10 federal holidays leaving 224. The president and the weather usually claim another 4 or so leaving 220. Employees who work 4-10s don’t come to work 52 days leaving 168. If a family member needs care, the employee is entitled to another 60 days of LWOP leaving 108. If the employee is sick himself, he earns 13 days per year to use leaving 95. My guess is that mandatory sexual harassment, ethics, diversity training and awards ceremonies and all hands meetings eat up another 15 leaving 80 to complete the employee’s IDP, standards setting, progress reviews, performance appraisals, job interviews, and other mandated activities. Wouldn’t you just love to be a Federal supervisor?

In Part three of this series, we’ll look at some ways to deal with juggling work and people you never see. Of course, some say we should curtail these programs for “problem employees”. What this means, of course, is that the only person the supervisor regularly sees is the person with the most serious problems. Now there’s a motivation to take on a supervisory job.

As always, any opinions expressed herein are mine and mine alone

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.