By Dan Gephart, December 7, 2021

By the time you read the first FELTG Newsletter of next year, it will be five (yes, five) years since the MSPB had a quorum. Heck, it’s been almost three years since the agency has even had a single board member.

Not.

One.

Member.

This is unacceptable. It’s unfair to employees, especially whistleblowers, and it’s unfair to agencies. It’s unfair to supervisors. It’s unfair to taxpayers. The fact that this has not been a priority is worrisome. Yet it continues, and petitions for review keep piling up amid the cobwebs on that darkened Executive Floor at MSPB Headquarters. It’s going to take new members a looooong time to get through that backlog.

The last couple years have been difficult for everyone. As we rumble toward the end of the calendar year, I resolve to stay optimistic, especially when it comes to looking ahead to 2022.

My rosy outlook for the Federal workplace includes a fully functioning Merit Systems Protection Board. I know that seems impossible, but three nominees have made it through committee. Now we need the Senate vote. It could happen.

But why stop there with positive predictions? Here are a few others:

  • Agencies will embrace the President’s Management Agenda.
  • Leaders will heed the lessons learned during the pandemic.
  • Federal EEO professionals will successfully navigate the vaccine mandates.
  • And, since I’m really putting myself out on a limb here, everyone will treat each other with empathy.

President’s Management Agenda

Last month, the Biden-Harris Administration released its Management Agenda Vision with three priorities. This is the priority that has our attention:

We will take new steps to attract, hire, involve, develop, support, and empower talent who can help us meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

This PMA lays out more specifics on how to do this, including “continuing to build a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible workforce that reflects our nation” and “ensuring that every Federal employee’s job is a good job with the tools, work environment, and resources they need to succeed.”

We at FELTG headquarters couldn’t agree more. Empowerment of federal supervisors has been the cornerstone of our training programs the past 20 years (Attend UnCivil Servant: Holding Employees Accountable for Performance and Conduct on February 9-10 and you’ll find out how.) and our commitment to DEIA is built into our mission statement. If you care about DEIA – and you better, because the White House certainly does – we’ll offer plenty of opportunities for training, including our March 9 session on Honoring Diversity: Eliminating Microaggressions and Bias in the Federal Workplace.

I’m also glad to see emphasis on employee engagement – a tool that is, unfortunately, underused in the federal sector.

The Management Agenda also calls for management to respect employee rights to “organize, bargain collectively, and have their voices heard through their unions in agency decisions that genuinely matter.” Wow, a true partnership for the betterment of taxpayers? Who wouldn’t want that, even if it does give birth to the oxymoronic “neutral encouragement” that Ann Boehm discussed in her column last month.

The return to a more collaborative labor-management relationship will be discussed in the two-hour virtual training Navigating Federal Labor Relations in 2022 on January 13. Register now.

Management agendas come and go with presidential administrations. They usually generate more talk than actual results. However, if agency leaders can dig down into the latest PMA, I think they’ll see several paths to improved productivity and workplace morale.

Pandemic Lessons

Several months ago, the Delta variant put a hard stop to agencies’ plans to return their employees to the physical workspace. Now, we hold our collective breath for more information about the Omicron variant. Yet, some agencies are dusting off those return plans. And others, taking a similarly optimistic approach to mine, have already set return dates.

Bringing people back without a determined plan that considers what happened during the pandemic is not only a wasted opportunity, but also a huge miscalculation. Think about the amount of flexibility and adaptability you and your employees showed over the last two years. How do you keep and expand those qualities? How well did your supervisors do managing remote workers? What did you discover out about virtual meetings?

OPM’s Additional Guidance on Post-Reentry Personnel Policies and Work Environment makes that point clear, as a huge portion of its 38-page guidance focuses on telework. OPM suggests agencies “take this opportunity to adjust their telework policies to reflect a new understanding about how telework has worked at their agencies.”

EEO and Vaccine Mandates

The success of vaccines is allowing agencies to consider returning employees en masse to the physical workspace. Yet, more than 1,600 people were still dying every day from the virus over the past 7 days. The pandemic is not over, and the vaccine mandates aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. Already, it’s become clear that enforcing the mandates has been, to put it lightly, challenging, and fraught with opportunities for EEO missteps.

FELTG has been the leader on providing training on this topic. FELTG President Deborah Hopkins and Instructor Katherine Atkinson presented several training events on the topic over the last several months, each session offering the latest guidance and newest strategies. That continues February 8 with Managing COVID-related EEO Challenges in the Federal Workplace.

First, you must determine whether to provide the reasonable accommodation (disability- or religious-based) of an exception to the mandate. However, it doesn’t end once that determination is made – even if the decision was to not provide the accommodation. It’s highly likely that a lot of these exemption denials will turn into complaints.

And throughout it all, supervisors will have to be on their best behavior. Retaliation is asserted in almost 45 percent of EEO complaints. Considering the emotions and politics wrapped up in this issue, it’s likely you’ll be fielding your share of reprisal complaints next year. (I know. I know. What happened to my rosy optimism?) On January 19, Katie will present Stop the Spread of COVID-related Retaliation in the Federal Workplace, where she’ll walk you through the details of recent EEOC guidance, discuss the various forms of EEO reprisal and why it’s the most common category in discrimination findings, and provide important guidance on what can be done to limit retaliation from happening at your agency.

Empathy all Around

When leadership is the topic, I like to go straight to the experts. I’m lucky we have quite a few FELTG instructors who fit that description – Anthony Marchese, Scott Boehm, and Marcus Hill. It’s not a coincidence that they have all, at one point or another, mentioned empathy as a critical attribute for successful leadership.

Scott, who has 32 years of leadership experience with the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community, told me last year that leaders need to have “the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They [must be] open-minded enough to understand their followers’ motivations, hopes, dreams, and problems so they can forge deep, personal connections with them.”

More recently, Marcus, a former Senior Executive Advisor for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, called empathy the key component of effective leadership that is often overlooked. “Effective leaders must have the ability to understand others’ thoughts and feelings from their points of view (instead of) the leader automatically overlaying hers/his. My former boss and good friend, Paul Hackenberry, emphasized this with me. He often says, ‘You don’t get to decide how others feel.’”

Leaders can set the tone and create a workplace where empathy can thrive. Think of the power an agency could access if that empathy spread to all employees. Your leaders would be leading. Performance would improve. There would be fewer EEO complaints. And employees would feel more connection to your organization and its mission. Talk about the “model workplace!”

Creating an empathetic workplace isn’t easy, and it won’t happen overnight. Take it one step at a time – and the first step is simple: Listen.

Is my optimism misplaced? Do you have any optimistic predictions for 2022? Let me know. And best wishes for a positive 2022 to everyone in FELTG Nation. Gephart@FELTG.com

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