Federal Leave Policies: Blessing or Curse? Part Three

Supervising and managing employees in the federal work environment is becoming more complex. How do you juggle work and people you rarely see? You may have resources available you do not know about. Here is advice that may help.

Part one of this series laid out Federal leave and work scheduling programs available to employees. Part two looked at the problems they can cause. This part suggests some ways to deal with juggling work and people you rarely or never see. Supervisors may have resources available they don’t even know about. Supervisors also have some tools they may not have known were in the toolbox. Below are some “to dos” that may help.

Read the Rules Governing Leave Carefully

Find one of those old fake leather three ring binders or one you got from a training class in 1997 that you haven’t opened since. Print out your agency’s policies on employee work scheduling and leave including FMLA, three hole punch it, put it in a binder you keep on the desk and, oh yeah, read it, underline key passages and attach some kind of tab to the important stuff. No, I’m not a Luddite and, yes, I’m a frequent computer user but there’s no substitute for a hands on accessible manual. If you don’t understand parts of the policy, a not uncommon occurrence considering how they’re often written, call or email (get a read receipt) your servicing “Employee Relations Specialist” in the personnel or human resources office and get an explanation.

Find Out What the Union Agreement Says

If the contract has articles and/or sections covering one of the leave policies or flexibilities, copy the section and add it to your desk binder. If you’re starting to ask why doesn’t my agency do this for me already, that’s a darn good question. If there are parts of the union contract you don’t understand, call or email a “Labor Relations Specialist” and get an explanation. No labor or employee relations specialists at your location, you say. Find an agency directory and call anybody with a similar title or if that’s no help, call a person with the title Personnel or Human Resources Director and ask where you can get help.

Get Organized

Develop a spreadsheet or MSWord table that lists every employee that works for you and identifies the work schedule of each. Some policies and/or labor agreements require a contract between the employee and the supervisor for telework. Find them and put them in your binder. While you’re at it, make sure the document is current. Do the same thing for flexitime and alternate work schedules. If you are a relatively new supervisor, inherited people from somewhere or were (past tense starting now) a crummy record keeper, email the employee for whom you lack info and nail down the arrangement and who it was made with.

Tracking Leave Usage

What I am about to suggest takes considerable self discipline. Keep an employee by employee leave record. Require the use of SF-71s or other approval vehicle unless forbidden to do so (not likely). If there’s a time keeper, have that person prepare the record for you, but you read it every pay period and you make sure it’s correct. If you have an electronic time and attendance system, print out the results each pay period and check it against your record. Employees are required to request leave, make sure they do so by requesting it from you in on a form or by email. If this is an area in which you have been remiss, send out an email telling employees what you want and how you want it. If the entire organization is lax, over tolerant of abuse and generally spineless, you may want to talk with your “Labor Relations Specialist” before you issue the email but don’t drop the ball.

Track the Work

I’ll bet good money that the position descriptions in your organization are useless documents (at least to you) and help you do little or nothing. Some kind of work tracking system is essential if you’re trying to juggle schedules and leave. Require employees to keep a list of projects they are working on and due dates or milestones with due dates. How often you want them may depend on how detailed the assignment, how quickly due dates come up or how much interdependence exists (where a dropped ball affects a number of people or can embarrass the organization.) This applies to all occupations and all grade levels. In fact, in higher level jobs with frequent distractions and shifting priorities, failing to track work can be disastrous. I’m a believer that the higher you go, the less you know. Until you get to the top, then you know nothing at all. In essence, if you don’t have a reliable work information generator that you use regularly, shame on you or better yet, start looking over your shoulder because an enormous ball is just waiting to be dropped (on you).

Use Performance Management Systems to Help

Every Federal employee is covered by a performance management system. All can use results as a measure. The better ones encourage it. Make sure that your work tracking and performance management system track each other. The less you see someone, the more you must pay attention to performance. Some Agency systems require quarterly progress reviews, most semiannually. There is no prohibition I know against more frequent performance tracking whether face to face or in writing. If you plan wisely, you can conduct a performance review with an employee in 15 minutes. This assumes the employees know what will happen including what you expect from them. If you can’t arrange for a sit down update on employee performance each month, you need to rethink your schedule and priorities. If you have ten subordinates, this will take 3-6 hours per month. If the idea of a monthly performance meeting makes you uncomfortable, call it an update or whatever you want, but do it.

Establish Formal Employee Communications Systems

A good practice is to greet each employee each day. Yeah, yeah, I know how very busy you and they are. Right! The number one contributor to supervisor-employee problems is alienation. See and be seen doing the seeing. If there is an employee on the clock who you do not see on a given day, email them and ask how they are doing. Get them used to this. If you have people on the road, touch base on a regular basis or make sure they do. There are those who will consider this as a sign you don’t trust them. They’ll get over it. The ones who regularly do a good job will recognize the 25 or so good reasons why a supervisor should stay in touch. If someone is on extended sick leave, call and wish them well on a regular basis.

Stay on Top of Problems

If something happens that makes you uneasy or an employee does or fails to do something they should, talk with them as soon as you can. In person is best, by phone if that’s not possible. Don’t address your concerns by email. State what appears to have happened and ask for their version. If their version doesn’t address the issue, is an excuse, or inconsistent with independently available facts, tell them that and ask them to explain. Some people are very, very good at moving a conversation away from unpleasantness. Stay focused. You’re looking for recognition on their part that there’s a problem and they need to address it. If you don’t get that recognition, a piece of paper is probably necessary.

All of the above are work. If you’re smart, you can delegate much of it to the employees. There are those that will accuse me of being a distrustful, bean counting, control freak. I prefer to be referred to as an accountability oriented, information systems developer with strong problem-solving skills. You decide. Oh, and by the way, thanks for your past comments and my appreciation in advance for future ones.

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.