Loyalty and Contempt in the Shadow of Uncle Sam

Disloyalty can be toxic. There is a sizable contingent of Uncle Sam’s workforce that dislike their bosses, their management in general, entire agencies, and even the Federal government itself. It seems to be growing larger and more vocal all the time.

You posted what?

I know someone who recently bought a small store. She kept all of the store employees on board and her four kids were brought onboard as well – to earn some money, support their mom, and accommodate a workload that swells in the
summer. These are folks with a strong work and family ethics. They are committed to making the venture a success. Two of her kids will go off to college in the fall, just as the summer trade wanes and the need for staff decreases.

One of the store employees inherited from the former owner complained about having to work side-by-side with the kids of the new owner…on her Facebook page! The complainer apparently forgot she had recently “friended” two of those family members along with the rest of her coworkers and a broader community network. The complainer was given a chance to explain. She did not do a good job apologizing, and was fired.

I have been thinking about that incident. Was the complaining employee fired for having a grievance, complaining publicly, for failing to take full responsibility for embarrassing her boss, or for just being stupid in her use of a social network? My guess is the combination of all four factors tipped the scales. No “Douglas Factors.” No MSPB.

Putting myself in the store owner’s shoes, would I have done differently? After all, why should I pay you every two weeks if you’re trashing my decisions or leadership publicly? No doubt, some managers would try to “counsel” the errant employee, advise her not to do it again and, hopefully, bring her around to accepting the conditions of her employment. Others might have let the incident roll off their backs, avoid the distasteful confrontation, and hope things would settle down on there own accord. Believing there was a rotten apple in the barrel, the owner went directly to removal. If I owned that business, it’s likely I would have done the same. Disloyalty can be toxic.

You say “tomato”…

This recent event coincided with my good fortune of teaching two seminars for Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia this summer. The second of these classes took place last week. I decided to arrive a day early so I could visit the park myself. There is much lore and much history surrounding our “founding fathers” and the documents they conceived and signed in Philadelphia. As I toured, read and listened, it became apparent to me that their tasks were monumental. Delegates disagreed profoundly on so many matters that required consensus if they were to become united states. It amazes me that they didn’t devolve into factions and either give up or split the colonies into two different nations.

The civility and mutual respect (not necessarily affection) those men exemplify humbles me. I wish that we, the heirs of their patience and perseverance, were emulating them better in times of fear and crisis.

Anger, frustration, rage, and serenity

The store owner’s experience and my time at Independence Park have me thinking about Federal employees – many of whom write, read, and comment on this site. There is a sizeable contingent of Uncle Sam’s workforce that dislike their bosses, their management in general, entire agencies, and even the Federal government itself. It seems to be growing larger and more vocal all the time.

The sympathetic/understanding/mediator side of me understands that lots of folks find themselves in jobs they dislike, working for bosses whose style or competence they question, or simply experiencing hard times in their personal lives. Coming to work isn’t fun for them. Keeping their attitude in check is a challenge. Why shouldn’t they vocalize their pain and frustration?

There’s another side of me that’s reminded of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

The original prayer (authored by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) goes on:

Patience for the things that take time

Appreciation for all that we have, and

Tolerance for those with different struggles

Freedom to live beyond the limitations of our past ways, the

Ability to feel your love for us and our love for each other and the

Strength to get up and try again even when we feel it is hopeless.

There is more wisdom in there than most of us can fully appreciate. Some readers of this article memorized the prayer long ago, yet are still exploring the depth of its meaning.

In less reflective moments, however, other sentences come to my mind: Put up or shut up! If you hate your job or management so much, why not move on? There are thousands out there who would be grateful for your salary, flexible schedule, benefits,
union contract, etc. Life’s short, stress can affect your health, and wouldn’t you rather die happy?

Chewing on the poison pill

I have become concerned about the levels of contempt in the Federal workplace – contempt for coworkers, supervisors/managers, entire agencies, elected/appointed leaders, and even the government itself. It crops up more and more often. I once encountered a very wise man who had his own definition for the word contempt. “Contempt is when you are so focused on the deficits of a person, place or institution; your first thoughts are always directed toward what’s wrong or lacking. Negativity takes over. It’s toxic.”

Too often on this site I read articles and especially comments from folks whose livelihood comes from the government, yet they choose to bash that very government. Retirees take time out of their [no-longer-work] days to read columns posted here and sneer back at the institution that rewards their long service with monthly checks.

More and more often I hear Feds complaining to the effect that others in their agency are slackers – as they take time to anonymously post comments to FedSmith articles. People still attached to the Federal teat condemn entire agencies of
government (sometimes their own and, at other times, ones like EEOC, FLRA, and OPM) without knowing a fraction of the people working there or the considering the stresses they experience.

Similarly, I read columns and comments from those opposed to unions who condemn organized labor while enjoying the benefits of flexible schedules, enforcement of fair labor standards, safer workplaces, etc. that unions fought for and won over decades. “Unions are bad” or “Management is evil” reflect a level of simplicity and contempt that, in the aggregate become alarming.

Sinners casting stones

I have gripes with managers, unions, and agencies myself; however, I grow weary of the contempt. I am tired of people who self-righteously condemn others in jobs they couldn’t perform better themselves. I’m as tired of hearing the term “ObamaCare.” (Why don’t they call Medicare “JohnsonCare” or EPA the “Nixon Protection Agency?”) The elected president of the US deserves a modicum of respect from citizens – and especially from those employed in the Executive Branch.

If you hold our own Federal government in contempt, why are you working here or cashing those retirement checks? Questioning policies and leadership is one thing. Contempt is altogether different. How long would you tolerate employees who trash your leadership?

I still believe that our government is a reflection of ourselves and that public institutions are necessary for the common good. I trust most readers would agree with that sentence. I have seen some bad stuff along the route of my career and have occasionally nipped at feeding hands. But I do not hold my country or the government or unions or management or elected officials in contempt. All occupy their positions for reasons that make common sense. All are reflections of a
system that includes us. All have contributed for good as well as made mistakes. The same could be said of me and you.

Come out of the closet

It would be refreshing to read articles and comments on this site from current and former civil servants who love their jobs, feel they contribute to a greater good, and remain loyal to the mission of their agencies. I would enjoy reading more on FedSmith regarding how we can make government work better or how your agency makes a positive contribution to this 234 year-old experiment in governance. Where things within our Executive Branch are really broken, what’s a realistic fix?

I also want to challenge those who regularly (and anonymously) comment on FedSmith articles to consider putting their name to their postings. After all, those of us who post these columns do so.If you are unwilling to do that (perhaps you fear that you’ll be the next person fired for public disloyalty), consider the Serenity Prayer before you post.

A modicum of civility can go a long way toward being heard, understood, and effective. Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues knew that.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.