Tweets, Politics, and A Career as a Federal Employee

Social media is a powerful tool. Federal employees are in a unique position. Can they tweet hostile political opinions to many followers? Is that a good career move?

It’s a brave new world for federal employees and politicians. Before social media opened up the world to anyone with a computer, an internet connection and a political opinion, opinions were more often personal beliefs shared with a few friends and colleagues.

Not that long ago, a federal employee telling a colleague over lunch he thinks the new president for whom he works is a facist would not create a problem. Who knows or cares what the employee thinks as long as he does a good job at work? The agency head or the White House would not know or care what a General Schedule employee working in a federal agency thinks about the president.

A federal employee sending out a tweet to thousands of people telling everyone he thinks the new president for whom he works is a facist is different. Welcome to federal employment in 2017.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a talent for making news. In the last couple of years, the issue was patient care, or the lack of it, in some VA facilities. The publicity led to legislation in Congress, appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and some VA employees finding their photos in newspapers with unflattering articles.

More recently, union activity at the VA has been an issue. It also led to bills being introduced to reduce the amount of official time being used by union officials at the same time patient care was being called into question in the national press.

Tweeting by VA Employees

New publicity is now emerging on a different topic. The VA may be taking center stage again.

How much criticism can a federal employee level at a president or an administration and still be retained as a federal employee? It is possible new case law or legislation will emerge reflecting the changes in technology when all is said and done. Of course, federal employees continue to have first amendment rights upon becoming an employee of the federal government.

Some Tweeters have been identified as officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some have been quite open about their affiliation. Others are more circumspect.

Several examples of these tweets that have been sent are displayed below.

One employee has been identified as an executive speechwriter for the VA. His biography on LinkedIn also mentions the Department of Veterans Affairs. He is not a fan of President Trump. The agency is standing behind the employee. One report quoted: “Like other federal employees, VA employees have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech in their private lives, including during non-duty hours” according to the Office of General Counsel.

The day after the election, he sent out these tweets with others that followed later:

Welcome to the world of fascism.

— Ed Ledford (@ECLedford) November 9, 2016

@nygrlnla Haven’t felt this bad since 9/11, and I was in the Pentagon (one side over).

— Ed Ledford (@ECLedford) November 9, 2016

Obviously, there is no confusion over where this person works. This VA employee is a former Marine and has over 5,000 followers on Twitter.

Shortly after the election, he offered this opinion:

I’m not sure which of the stages of grief I’m on, but its definitely not the last one.

— Timothy Lawson (@TimLawson21) November 10, 2016

Some Twitter users were not pleased with him working for the VA and spreading his negative views about the administration or the president. One person questioned whether his personal views would impact him doing his job:

@highvoltageeee2 I’m here to serve veterans and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

— Timothy Lawson (@TimLawson21) February 17, 2017

Another reader of his Tweets sent his own opinion along to Mr. Lawson:

@TimLawson21 Most Marines have more self discipline than to publicly belittle their Commander but not you, do the right thing and resign.

— Robert Allen (@Robbren) February 18, 2017

One reader expressed her fear he would lose his job.

@AngelKat777 thank you for the kind words. Fortunately, I do not believe it’ll come to that.

— Timothy Lawson (@TimLawson21) February 17, 2017

Whistleblower Protection, First Amendment Rights or Firing Offense?

Time will tell how the government will react to employees using a large social media forum to express political opinions. Based on several decades of experience in federal human resources, here is a likely scenario.

First, each case will be handled differently based on individual circumstances.

Second, most agencies will react as the VA has reacted. The VA has stated there is no basis for taking action against people sending out Tweets hostile to the new administration. “I’ve spoken with Tim’s supervisor and learned that whatever personal opinions he has in no way affect his ability to do his job for the Department of Veterans Affairs or for Veterans,” according to an agency spokesperson.

Of course, the agency may decide to verify, if it has not already done so, if the Tweets were sent out using government time, facilities or equipment. If an agency employee Tweets uncomplimentary personal opinions about the administration, president or agency management, and it was done at home on a weekend or after working hours, the employee may not receive much resistance, if any, from the agency.

Third, these tweeting agency employees have now become known to senior people and probably to some in the White House. The agency is standing behind the right of employees to express themselves.

Many or most of these tweets are not whistleblowing activity. They are in the category of personal political opinions or complaints. (See Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Whistleblower?) Whistleblower protections will not apply.

A federal employee does have the right to express a personal opinion. If a person is fired for doing so, he or she may end up winning on appeal and be reinstated. Winning or losing will likely depend on the facts of the case, the charges in the adverse action and how it was presented through the entire process. (See also, Leaking Information, Federal Employees and Political Ideology)

In many cases, nothing will happen. The employee may keep Tweeting and may not experience any repercussions.

Reality Can Be Unfair

A number of years ago, a newly appointed Special Counsel gave a speech to a group of human resources professionals in the Washington, DC area. He was roundly criticized for his lack of compassion for federal employees speaking out against actions in their agencies.

I recall the speech because it was based on experience and reflected a knowledge of how organizations and people react to a situation they may not like but cannot change. He noted that anyone who sticks their head above the crowd draws attention. Drawing attention can be good or bad depending on what made the person stand above the crowd.

An employee who has become known for strong negative opinions about the current administration, the president or agency management has developed a reputation. He or she is sticking his or her head above the crowd.

Some admire the person’s courage. Some will offer support. Some will be admirers who occasionally gush with flattery.  The press may seek opinions for publication. The person who has become well known may believe the agency can’t touch him and continue to add to his reputation with more public opinions.

Some in the agency may view this person as a problem to be tolerated. The agency may have concluded no adverse action or disciplinary action can or will be taken as winning a removal case is open to question.

There’s a Catch…

Here is the flip side. An agency does not have to promote a person. There are usually reasons to support a promotion action. A person does not have to be given training to enhance a career. An employee does not have to be given the most desirable assignments. There is no requirement that an agency grant an award or bonus to an employee.

An agency may also find a person’s talents are needed for an urgent problem that has to be resolved. This problem may need to be resolved in another geographic location, far away from where the employee now works. A directed reassignment may be in order to take advantage of a person’s unique talents.

Tweeting hostile political opinions about the president or new administration, when it is known the Tweeter is an agency employee,  is unlikely to be a good career move for a federal employee.

Is it worth it to vociferously attack the new president in social media and perhaps become a local celebrity? Perhaps it is. Keep in mind that from the agency’s standpoint, a person known to harbor very negative opinions and a willingness to Tweet these opinions into the social media universe may be creating a toxic work environment. One person’s astute political observations or opinions will be seen by others reading the Tweets as hateful rhetoric.

Leaving a federal job is always an option. For those with a strong political ideology contrary to current leadership, this may be the best option if there are other employment opportunities available.

If the working environment becomes uncomfortable, and exercising a right to freedom of speech does hamper career opportunities, leaving federal employment or transferring to another agency can be a realistic consideration. A person’s mental or physical health should be a paramount consideration and living with serious stress can be debilitating.

Before hitting the “send” button on a Tweet expressing political angst, weighing potential consequences against the satisfaction of expressing those opinions is worth a minute or two of your time.

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