10 Reasons Supervisors Give for Not Trying to Resolve Employee Problems

Do federal managers take disciplinary action only when absolutely necessary?

A while back, I wrote an article suggesting a critical link between supervisor involvement and knowledge and the success of an employee or labor relations program. Since then, I’ve taken to asking the supervisors in my training classes what barricades exist, if any, to effective employee problem solving including use of the disciplinary options available.
While I can’t claim scientific accuracy for my sampling methods or that what I’ve heard is truth, it’s interesting to note what they (the supervisors) believe to be true. But if you’re out there in a Federal Agency trying to run a program and supervise supervisors or if you are a management advisor, you might want to do some of your own sampling and see if you get similar results.

Supervisor Claims

These claims are in no particular order of frequency but I’ve heard each enough times to put it on the list.
  • Claim #1. An Employee’s Gender, Ethnicity, Age, or Disability Limits a Supervisor’s Ability to Take Corrective Action.
  • Claim #2. The Agency’s Fear of a Grievance, Unfair Labor Practice, EEO Complaint, Whistleblower Complaint or Other Employee Appeal Limits a Supervisor’s Ability to Take Corrective Action.
  • Claim #3. The Agency’s Fear of Union Involvement Limits a Supervisor’s Ability to Take Corrective Action.
  • Claim #4. Upper Level Management Will Not Support a Supervisor’s Attempts to Correct a Problem.
  • Claim #5. The Attorneys Won’t Support an Action Unless there’s a 100% Chance of Winning.
  • Claim #6. The Human Resources Staff is Nonresponsive, Unavailable, Lacks Expertise or is Intimidated by the Issues Raised in Claims #1-5.
  • Claim #7. Supervisors Are Not Routinely Trained in Resolving Employee Problems.
  • Claim #8. Agency Policies, Union Contracts and Other Written Guidance is Out of Date, Conflicting, or impossible to Decipher.
  • Claim #9. Specific Laws, Particularly the Family and Medical Leave Act, Make it Too Hard to Address Attendance Issues(the #1 Federal Employee Problem).
  • Claim #10. Virtually All First Line Supervisors Are Responsible for Mission Work That Consumes Most of Their Time and Little is Left for Supervision.

Fact or Myth?

There are some obvious facts lurking in the background of these claims that most would agree on. They are:
  1. Employees are sensitized to concerns about discrimination in the workplace. History is a tough barrier to overcome. Some employees also subscribe to the “in your face” school of interpersonal relations. Others are tempted to use gender, ethnicity, age and disability to avoid taking responsibility for their behavior or performance. The Federal government has probably done the best job of any category of employer to seek to eliminate workplace discrimination.
  2. Federal employees have more avenues of redress for perceived rights’ violations than any other workforce. Some Agencies see more activity than others. It doesn’t help that there are institutions whose sole continued viability rests on the adjudication of employee allegations through, in some cases, never ending litigation.  Recently a manager in one of my classes related the story of a subordinate who had filed in excess of thirty discrimination allegations over a number of years and had yet to have any sustained. He said almost all had proceeded to the investigation and initial hearing stage.
  3. Collective bargaining is in the public interest or so says Federal law. Since little of substance is negotiable, unions tend to involve themselves in day to day work decisions. Unions also exist solely on the sufferance of the members, so being seen as an employee’s advocate right or wrong, is often not only tempting but essential to keeping a union job. I don’t know a labor relations specialist with more than a few months experience who can’t relate a story of an over the top union representative screaming at a supervisor because under the Federal Labor Relations Authority case law, they can do so without consequence.
  4. Agency senior managers and executives are buffeted by a number of winds. In some of the Agencies which employed me as a Fed as well as those for whom I worked as an advisor, putting a lid on noise emitting from lower levels was a priority. Many reasons for this exist. Among them are a legitimate concern that a political appointee will take an interest in fixing the matter, a potentially disastrous outcome; worries that any “problem” would reflect adversely on them; or and maybe most common, that the lower level management was overreacting to a minor issue. Issues are always minor, of course, when their not on your desk for resolution.
  5. Perhaps there should be an appeal system for making disparaging remarks about attorneys. It, for sure, would eclipse any other appeal system for pure volume of cases. My personal experience with Agency counsel has been more positive than negative although the criticism that they are risk averse can have merit depending on the Agency. Unfortunately, lawyers too often see a case when it is very far along and, because they’re trained this way, they look for flaws. Case flaws can weaken a lawyer’s interest in investing a lot of time in what may be a less than desired outcome. There’s argument to involve counsel relatively early on any team that’s addressing a serious employee issue.
  6. Consolidation, the Clinton/Gore reinvention fiasco, low budgets and a flood of retirements have all taken a toll on the number and quality of Human Resources staff. When one considers that filling jobs and working benefits programs are more immediate concerns, it’s understandable that devoting resources to developing high end labor and employee relations advice is often just too expensive. Some Agencies, you know who you are, have gutted costly training programs and advisory services because of shorter term priorities.
  7. The great book of witchcraft known as the Federal Personnel Manual was literally burnt at the stake by Al Gore. Now I like Al as an elder statesmen for the environment but his government reforms were catastrophic. You either have to provide Agencies with detailed advice to cope with government’s complex personnel laws or provide substantial training for managers. In my class on resolving employee problems, I do a session on the importance of due process within the Federal system. I continue to be amazed at how few have any exposure to the concept.
  8. Regarding Agency policies, union contracts and the like, pick up any one of them and read it. I rest my case. A couple of Agencies have done a great job of putting together readable guidance. Check out Interiors’ Personnel Guide for Managers. Most don’t.
  9. Washington Rules. I’ve always been amazed at the layering of legislation affecting Federal employees over time. No one with any sense could have created the Federal Labor Relations Authority, Merit Systems Protection Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an arbitration system that all compete with each other for work. There is no requirement for consistency or collaboration. Add to their existence, laws that they each enforce that are contradictory and have vastly different process and your head hurts just thinking about it.
  10. It turns out that this article beats up on AL Gore. Sorry Al, but when you came to office, the system was already too complex for you to understand so you resorted to handing out hammers to everyone. I understand, I really do. Al’s biggest error, though, was his and just about every other politician-reformers bad assumption about Federal supervision. Al wanted to raise the supervisory ratio to 25 to 1.  Al was used to driving by union construction sites where the supervisor was identifiable by a white shirt and tie capped by a white safety helmet. That’s because in the private sector, the employees own their work and bargain for it. Not so in the Feds. In fact, we have management rights written into law that make sure the work is done by anyone the Agency wants including the supervisor. There’s a good reason for this. Supervisors and managers in government aren’t selected for those jobs based on extensive education, training and experience dealing with people but mostly because the selectee was the best employee in the bunch. Only a fool would want to lose their best employee’s productivity so “leave the employees alone and get to work” is a common mantra.
In a recent Fedsmith article, Dave Orr pointed out that OPM’s Director, John Berry, wants to reform the Federal Civil Service and addressed some of the pitfalls thereto. John, we’d all like to reform the Federal Civil Service, but you’ll notice there are no statues to Al Gore on the Mall based on his reinvention efforts.
Some may see this article and my comments as politically incorrect or worse. The issue is how much truth is there in what supervisors have said or in my take on why they might have said it. In any case, as always, any opinion expressed is mine alone unless you happen to agree.

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.