Can’t Get Employees to Open the Office Door? You Got a Problem With That?!

What happens when employees lock a door to keep out agency managers and other agency personnel in order to keep anyone from “tattling to management about what is [or] is not being done[.]” In this case, a negotiability appeal was filed with the FLRA.

Computer professionals have a stereotypical image of not having "people oriented" personalities. Sometimes there is a reason for the stereotype.

Here, perhaps, is a case that is an example of how some federal employees would like to keep the rest of the world away from their personal office space.

More importantly, the case also provides an example of how the ability of an agency to manage its workforce can be given away during bargaining with a union–or at least how agency management may have given up on the ability to manage its workforce and looked to a third party for assistance in resolving a problem. This case is a negotiability dispute that went before the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). As with many negotiability disputes, only the facts directly related to the dispute are revealed in the decision. The interesting part of the case may be what is implied by the facts revealed. Read on for more.

For those who have not studied the "ins and outs" of the federal labor relations program, a negotiatibilty decision is usually a case goes to the FLRA for a decision on whether an agency is legally required to negotiate on a union’s proposal. If it is negotiable, the bargaining will begin. If it is not negotiable, the case is over. In other words, the agency and the union will sometimes spend a year or two litigating an issue to determine if bargaining should begin sometime in the future. And, of course, if the issue is negotiable, the ultimate decision as to what will go into the final agreement can also be litigated.

There is no requirement in law or regulation that a proposal has to be literate or grammatically correct. Here is the proposal in dispute in this case: “The door to the information technology office remain closed.”

According to the FLRA this is what the proposal means. It would permit the information technology (IT) staff to maintain the status quo of working behind a closed and locked door during business hours, rather than working in that office with the office door open, as proposed by the agency.

So, apparently, this agency now has a situation (the "status quo") where some of its employees are going into an office, closing or locking the door during business hours to keep managers and other people out of their hair. That situation, presumably, makes it easier for the people locked in the room to do whatever they want to do without interference from the outside world or little direction from the managers being paid to ensure the agency’s mission is being accomplished. The case does not explain why the agency decided to allow this situation to occur or how long it had being going on. But, apparently, the solution may have been to go to the FLRA with a negotiability case while the office was off-limits to agency personnel that may have needed to discuss their concerns with the IT folks. Perhaps they just slipped a note under the door in hopes that someone would read it from inside the inner sanctum.

The problem with leaving the door closed, according to the agency, is that someone from management occasionally needs to see what is going on in the office. With the door locked and closed, that was not a possibility.

The union effectively conceded that the agency was correct about the locked door keeping management from walking in and seeing whether anyone was working. And, keeping the doors locked apparently made life easier for the computer folks because, according to the union, "it kept anyone from ‘tattling to management about what is [or] is not being done[.]’"

Moreover, in addition to the problem of tattling, leaving the door open would subject the computer mavens to a “hostile working environment” leading to interruptions and “snide remarks from other [agency] personnel”.

Perhaps that indicates the computer folks did not want to read the notes being slipped under the door either because "snide remarks" would seem to be a possiblity from those who needed assistance with their computer systems but could not get inside to discuss it with those getting paid to fix the problem.

Perhaps recognizing the inherent futility of arguing against the agency’s statement of its concerns, the union did not respond to the agency’s statement of its position.

In a relatively short decision, the FLRA concluded that keeping the door closed would interfere with the agency’s ability to direct and assign work and to determine internal security practices.

The bottom line: The computer professionals will likely have to deal with the inconvenience of other people bothering them during the workday after all.

Who says the government does not operative effectively and efficiently?
AFGE Local 1712 and Fort Richardson, Alaska, 62 FLRA No. 6 (February 6, 2007)

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