Are You Ready? Federal Managers and Supervisors Should Prepare for Difficult Situations and Events

Federal facilities, employees and leaders have been targets of both the deranged and those seeking to make a point in a variety of ways, some horrible, some banal and everywhere in between. When an emergency occurs in the federal workplace, are you prepared to deal with it? Here is advice that could be useful to anyone and help your colleagues and your federal career.

As you watched the stories (and there were many) of the awful and tragic events at Virginia Tech unfold on TV last week, did it occur to you that people in your organization are responsible for the Agency’s response to tragic events? Did you pause to ask what would I do if…? Federal facilities, employees and leaders have been targets of both the deranged and those seeking to make a point in a variety of ways, some horrible, some banal and everywhere in between. Having spent a career helping managers deal with employee problems, it occurred to me that Agencies that haven’t gotten their planning down to the supervisor and employee level will fail at the little crises and have disastrous results from a big one.

I was fortunate to have worked at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which encouraged disaster planning and developed a world class model for helping the families of victims cope in real time with transportation disasters. I was also fortunate to work directly for one of the key players at the Board who is now a well known disaster response consultant for businesses and others facing these challenges. His name is Peter Goelz. His message was and is how extremely critical planning can be as these kinds of events are confronted and how, if inadequate planning is done, these events will spin out of anyone’s ability to minimize their effects or perhaps control them at all.

The media, as always, has focused on the negative while the positive was going on all around them. But that too is a function of our world and one we better prepare for as well.

Micro v. Macro

I am certainly not qualified to address the global issues of mass murder and terror but believe that the “little” tragedies are not at all small to the people they affect. So in this article, I’d like to discuss some events a first line supervisor should be prepared to handle and how to go about putting together a plan.

Death On and Off the Job

What does your Agency’s plan to deal with the death of an employee at work include? More importantly, what’s yours? Each year, federal employees die as the result of accidents or intentional acts. Employees may pass away while in travel status which often requires careful attention to a wide variety of issues. Very hard tasks such as notifying family members can fall to a supervisor.

An important responsibility includes the explanation of benefits. HR offices in most Agencies have some experience with employee deaths and often provide guidance to supervisors. Is this a matter which has been planned for or even discussed at your organization? Similarly, the passing of a coworker or retiree with current ties to your work group raises practical issues. Dealing with leave requests to attend funerals, offers of assistance in dealing with related retirement effects and the like should not come as a surprise to management and certainly shouldn’t be the stuff of knee jerk reaction.

On and Off the Job Illness and Injury

There are three unbreakable rules regarding an employee on-the-job injury or illness.

1. Before anything else is done, get the employee to treatment.

2. No matter what it takes, costs or involves, before anything else is done, get the employee to treatment.

3. No matter who has an opinion, position or function, before anything else is done, get the employee to treatment.


Handling worker injuries and the claims process are very well documented in Federal service. Get a copy of the rules. Less clear in a lot of places is the handling of occupational disease or serious medical conditions not directly tied to the job.

Security Breaches

Recently, data base breaches resulting from computer theft and the compromise of citizen private data should bring home to every supervisor the importance of security. There is a lot of proprietary data floating around in Agencies and other security issues that are not as immediate as the ray gun under development at Air Force but these breaches can be harmful to people and bring down the Agency’s standing in the eyes of the public.

Employee Criminal Activity and Threats

Harry gets arrested. The rumor mill is active. With whom may you discuss it? If Harry’s offence is particularly threatening to other worker’s, what happens if he gets out on bail? Worse yet, Harry gets belligerent one day over his perceived mistreatment and tells someone he’s going to solve the problem the easy or hard way. What’s your Plan?

What if the only cops your organization ever sees are the GSA contract building guards?

Evidence of Drug or Alcohol Use

Admit it. You know what marijuana looks and smells like. You certainly know what a pint of Fleischmann’s smells like even if you only drink Chardonnay. So you find some of one or the other in Mary’s cubicle while you’re looking for the report that was due last Friday and which she told you was on her desk. How do you deal with this? Who do you tell?

Putting Together a Plan

I have always been an advocate of keeping one or more of those government-issue black fake leather three ring binders on the supervisor’s desk or easily reached in a drawer or book case. These “HOW-TO” binders should include such things as the labor agreement, performance management forms and requirements, and anything else you might need to reference in a hurry.

For the issues covered above, find out:

  1. Who are the really hot stuff contacts, e.g., fire and injury first responders; law enforcement; and internal security people and what is their contact info. Where’s the closest emergency medical treatment available? Put the numbers on your cell phone speed dial.
  2. For emergencies, does the Agency have a plan that works and has been updated since your office last moved? Find it. Update it yourself if you have to.
  3. For less immediate matters, is there an instruction, policy or guidance document addressing the issue?
  4. If there’s an Agency Point of Contact (POC), what is that person’s name, phone, location, email, etc.
  5. Who, specifically, by name, phone, location, email, etc. knows anything about the matter?
  6. Who in management needs to know if a certain thing happens?
  7. What is the contact information for your:
    –HR advisor
    –Agency Counsel
    –Worker’s Compensation advisor
    –Employee Assistance Program
  8. Who deals with the media and under what circumstances?
  9. Who, technically, has authority to represent the Agency in a given matter and subject to what limits?
  10. How do your employees know what to do in a given situation? Have you ever briefed them on dealing with unusual situations? Do they know what they can say to the media as an Agency Representative? Do they know what’s in and how to find your government black fake leather book of what to dos if you’re on leave and they are acting?

Get on it. If you are very, very lucky or live and work in a place where nothing bad ever happens, you may avoid dealing with the above, but don’t bet on it. I’m not selling this as a career enhancing move although it might be. I’m suggesting that if you sally forth into one of these problems or something like it without prior thought or planning, you’ll pay a price you really don’t want to and won’t have to worry about others kicking you in the pants. You will do it yourself.

The opinions stated herein are those of the Author and do not represent those of FedSmith or any other entity with which I may be connected financially, fraternally or otherwise. And, by the way, for those of you with the comments meant to do me or others I know harm, shame on you. Sticks and stones…

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.