By William Wiley, May 9, 2017

Forever, it has been black letter law in the federal workplace that an employee has to do what his supervisor tells him to do. With exceedingly rare exception (involving safety, Constitutional rights, and illegality), if a supervisor tells an employee to do something, the employee has to do it. If he doesn’t, he can be disciplined for Insubordination, perhaps even be fired.

This concept is embodied in a term often heard in a unionized workplace, “Work now; grieve later.” If an employee is confronted with an order that she believes to be improper – perhaps the order requires her to forego a break that she believes she is entitled to under the collective bargaining agreement – the employee is supposed to obey the order, then challenge the order after the fact by filing a grievance. In that balanced approach, the supervisor still gets done what needs to be done, and the employee still gets redress to correct any harm that might have occurred because of the order if it is found to have been improper after the fact.

Think what it would be like otherwise. What if an employee could disobey an order he felt was wrong? The supervisor orders the employee to do something. If the employee believed that the order violated the union-management collective bargaining agreement or some other rule, the employee could refuse to obey the order without fear of discipline. Perhaps the order would have to be subjected to oversight in the grievance procedure, and once adjudicated as consistent with the CBA, the employee would then have to obey it. Can you imagine the disruption that this would cause in the federal workplace, if supervisory orders had to be adjudicated as proper before they could be enforced?

Add to this the reality that CBAs and regulations are subject to various interpretations, that one person’s honest belief in what the rule means is different from what another person believes in good faith the rule means. If a supervisor gives an order, in my experience the supervisor believes that it is a proper order. If the employee concludes that based on his own interpretation the order violates some policy, should we really delay obedience to the order until the disagreement is resolved by an arbitrator or a judge? Holy-moly. And the public thinks that the government is inefficient as it is. Just wait until they see all those civil servants waiting around until their boss’s orders are litigated as proper before they will be obeyed.

Well, buckle up. Congress is on a path to make this hellscape scenario a reality in the federal government. Recently, the House passed HR 657, the “Follow the Rules Act,” amending 5 USC 2302(b)(9). That legislation would make it illegal for an agency to discipline a disobedient employee who was insubordinate because the employee refused to obey an order that violated a “rule or regulation.”  Let’s think this change through for a minute, from the perspective of those of us with significant experience in the federal civil service:

  • The media buzz around the passage of this bill was that it would increase protections for whistleblowers. Wrong. Whistleblower rights are embedded in 2302(b)(8). This legislation would amend 2302(b)(9). If enacted, it will apply to EVERYONE, not just those federal employees who blow the whistle.
  • If an employee reads this amendment (if the Senate and the President make this bill into a law), she would be comfortable believing that she could refuse to obey an order that she believes violates a “rule or regulation.” Well, what if it turns out she is wrong? What if her honest belief about what the order meant was simply mistaken? If she is fired for insubordination, if on appeal her argument that the order violated a rule is not affirmed, she has effectively bet her job that her interpretation was correct at the moment she chose to be insubordinate. Why in the world would we want to entice federal employees into this high-risk gamble with their livelihood when there are other ways to protect them from abuse?
  • The amendment is silent about the definition of the words “rule” and “regulation.” As we have something called the “Code of Federal Regulations,” it’s relatively easy to recognize “regulation” as referring to that body of guidance. But what is a “rule” exactly? Fortunately, the word “rule” has been in law since 1978. It can be found in the paragraph immediately above (b)(9), the paragraph that defines a whistleblower as someone who, among other things, discloses a violation of “law, rule, or regulation.” MSPB recently defined the word “rule” for this purpose as “established or authoritative standards for conduct or behavior.” In one case, it found that a simple agency memorandum could constitute a rule. See Chavez v. DVA, 120 MSPR 285 (2013); see also Raiszadeh v. DHS, DC-0752-12-0648-I-2 (2015)(NP).
  • If the Board were to use that same interpretation of “rule” for the purpose of enforcing the HR 657 amendment, just think of all the potential that an employee has for believing that a supervisor’s order violates a “rule.” Double holy-moly.
  • Again, looking to whistleblower protection law for guidance about how to interpret the proposed amendment to (b)(9), an employee is protected as a whistleblower if he discloses a violation of “law, rule, or regulation” even if he is mistaken as to whether there actually has been a violation of law, rule, or regulation! All the whistleblower needs is a “good-faith belief” that there has been a violation. See Herman v. DoJ, 115 MSPR 386 (2011). What if we were to apply that same principle to cases that arise under the proposed amendment? Do we really want to allow civil servants to disobey supervisory orders that conform with law, rule, and regulation simply because the employee has a good-faith belief that the order is improper?

Here at FELTG, we try our best not to do too much of that “The sky is falling!” stuff, raising concerns where there really are none to be raised. We hesitate to sound the alarm too many time. But this is one that might be worth your attention. Know any Senators? If so, please let them know that this thing is coming and that it has repercussions that are not being recognized. Buddies with The Big Guy? Next time you’re on the links, maybe mention that this might be a good one to veto. Because if this bill becomes law, it will legitimize and protect every federal employee who thinks his supervisor is an idiot.

And I hear that there are a lot of those around. [email protected]

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