If Only They Would Listen…

The author says that many federal workers do not feel safe speaking honestly with their supervisors and agency leaders. He discusses why this is a problem and how the federal workplace could be improved if supervisors and their employees would communicate more openly.

On March 4, the Office of Personnel Management announced the rollout of the 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The FEVS is intended to provide “Federal employees with the opportunity to provide feedback on their jobs, their supervisors, and their senior leaders.” When Government Executive posted a story about the 2016 FEVS, they used the headline – Feds: Tell Your Manager How You Really Feel — With No Repercussions.

That headline highlights one of the most important aspects of the FEVS – it is anonymous – but it also brings to mind a problem that I believe is far too prevalent in the federal government. Too many federal workers do not feel safe speaking honestly with their supervisors and agency leaders.

The 2015 FEVS found that only 62.6% of federal workers agreed they could “disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” Only 58.5% agreed they “feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.” Those numbers may sound fairly good, but keep in mind there are over 2,000,000 federal workers. When 62% agree they can do something, that means there are 750,000 who either do not agree or have no opinion.

In an excellent series of articles a few years ago on FedSmith.com, the late Steve Oppermann wrote about the reasons employees file discrimination complaints. Other than the obvious cases of overt discrimination, one of the most common reasons he cited, and that I have heard time and time again from employees and EEO practitioners, is that the employee felt there was no other safe way to vent their frustrations or raise their concerns.

As a Chief Human Capital Officer and HR Director, and in earlier years doing work in staffing and labor/employee relations, I often saw evidence of the same issue. Some employees simply did not believe it was safe to have a conversation with the boss about an issue that was troubling.

In my work with unions representing federal workers, I heard (and verified) countless horror stories about employees who had conversations with bosses who turned around and used the conversation against the employee.

One of the most egregious was a case where an employee asked for an accommodation to seek treatment for alcoholism and the supervisor made notes of the conversation, then “accidentally” emailed them to the entire work group. Maybe it really was an accident, but the employee whose most personal information was revealed certainly did not think so.

Employees are not the only ones to fear the consequences of open conversations. Time and time again I have heard from supervisors who fear the consequences of being open about their opinions – whether to their direct reports or their own bosses.

So – what we are left with is a situation where the anonymity of a government-wide survey is the only way many employees feel safe in telling managers how they really feel. And many supervisors are afraid an open conversation with their direct reports will lead to a complaint, grievance, IG report, or other consequence.

I think that is sad. It is sad for the employee who feels like s/he has no voice in the workplace. It is sad for the supervisor who might be very willing to deal with a problem if s/he actually knew it existed or who would be happy to communicate with employees if s/he did not not fear the information would be used against them. It is sad for the agency that gets less productivity because employees do not feel they are able to be heard and supervisors fear the consequences of open communication. And it is sad for the taxpayers who pay good money for the government to do its work on their behalf.

Years ago, when I was in my first managerial job, I had situation that perfectly reflects the bad outcomes that result from the lack of open communication and the good outcomes that can happen when people really talk. A member of my staff had a reputation for being difficult (to say the least). She seemed to have a chip on her shoulder that would not go away. Her performance was acceptable, but not much better than that. She thought I (and every other leader in the organization) had it out for her. It came to a head when we had a performance rating discussion that went badly.

She told me she wished she could say what she really thought. Being young and naive and too stupid to know better, I offered a deal. She could say anything she wanted, however she wanted to say it, and I gave my word that there would be no repercussions. The flip side was that I could do the same and she would make the same promise. In the midst of a tense and thoroughly unpleasant conversation, we were both so fed up with the tension between us that we decided to take a leap of faith and trust that the other would keep his/her word.

I learned a lot. I learned how she believed the deck was stacked against her. How she had been treated badly by supervisors in the organization who assumed she was a “problem employee” who would always be unhappy and treated her accordingly, and how she saw other, less experienced, people getting plum assignments that she had hoped to have a chance at. She told me how much she resented my privileged upbringing, and her view that everything had been handed to me while she had to fight for opportunities.

When I told her that my “privileged upbringing” was growing up in a trailer park in West Virginia and that I resented her mistaken assumption that every decision supervisors in the office made was directed at her, something happened. We started having a real conversation between two people rather than a supervisor/subordinate. We spent the next couple of hours talking and getting to know one another and learning that we were both wrong, and that what we “knew” about the other was not at all true.

The result of that one conversation was that we had a lot more. We agreed to be open about what we were thinking. It turned out she was not an “OK ” employee. She was actually really good and was a lot of fun to work with. In the end, she not only got some of those plum assignments, I promoted her to a key customer-facing role where she did a great job. I grew to enjoy working with her very much. When I left the organization a couple of years later, we were hugging and crying. That would never have happened if two people had not had a conversation.

So – I think every federal employee should respond when the FEVS is released next month. But more than that, I think federal workers and their supervisors should talk with one another and listen a lot more. Maybe some of those conversations will go nowhere, but some of them will make a difference.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.