By William Wiley, March 6, 2018

We get such good questions here at FELTG (because our readers are so smart, hardworking, and good looking). This one brought a big old smile to our faces:

Dear FELTG-Funny-People,

I’ve mentioned some of the topics covered in your newsletter to my boss, specifically the one about ordering an employee to smile and participate in meetings.  His perspective is that this would never work “in the real world.”  My perspective on his comment is that our agency solicitors wouldn’t support such an order or recommendation for removal.

Sad in Seattle

And our ever-thoughtful FELTG response:

Dear Sad-

Thank you for your nice note. It’s very kind of you to take the time to comment on one of our silly articles.

As for whether MSPB would uphold a removal for a failure to participate in meetings or smile, our job is to say what MSPB has done in the past so that we can predict what we can do in the future. And they have never said that this sort of misconduct (insubordination) would not support a removal. Our job is not to have an opinion on what should be done, but instead what can be done. That is my real world, and with all due respect, that is the real world of your supervisor as well as that of your solicitor.

We don’t need to guess at what MSPB would do. We just have to look and see what they’ve done in the past. When we do that, we find ZERO cases in which the Board has said that an employee is free to disregard a job-related order from a supervisor. In 40 years. Remember, I was the Chief Counsel to the Chairman at MSPB through most of the ’90s. I know this stuff. It is easy to imagine a job in which attending meetings would be job-related. Even smiling can be a job requirement; e.g., a supervisor might want employees who contact the public to smile for the benefit of presenting a better image of the agency. Your boss and your solicitor may not know this, but that doesn’t make them correct. Instead, it makes them uninformed.

Best of luck.

This is an important matter, not so much because we all want more smiling civil servants, but because it highlights a bedrock principle of the federal workplace. Supervisors get to decide what work is going to get done. Not some judge or political appointee on some board; the decision goes to front line supervisors. There are three and only three requirements for a supervisor’s order to be enforceable through discipline:

  1. There must be a nexus (relationship) between the order and the work of the agency,
  2. The order itself must not violate a law or require the employee to violate a law, and
  3. The order must be do-able (attainable).

Let’s say that you supervise a public contact Federal employee, perhaps a hypothetical screener for TSA. Your Customer Service surveys show that many members of the public who are screened by your employees find them to be gruff, uncaring, and rude (this is all hypothetical, of course). You decide that ordering your employees to smile might reduce the public’s negative perception of your crew. If you decide to order your employees to smile:

  1. There is a nexus between you order and the work of the agency,
  2. There is no law against smiling, and
  3. It is possible for employees to smile.

That’s all it takes. If Mr. Grumpy intentionally refuses your order for whatever reasons, you can reprimand him for insubordination. If he commits a second offense, you can suspend him, and if he commits another offense after he serves the suspension, you have the authority to consider firing him. You need not tolerate an insubordinate employee indefinitely.

“But, Bill. Won’t a judge overturn the removal on appeal?” Nope. The Board has long found fault with judges who insert themselves into the decision process regarding what work should be done. Supervisors decide what work should be done, enforceable through removal, if necessary. Even if a judge would never order her employees to smile and thinks it silly that any federal supervisor would give a smile-order, the judge has no authority to set aside the order. All she can do is review the order against the above three criteria, evaluate the penalty where she must give heavy weight to the repetitive intentional nature of the insubordination, and uphold the removal. If she did not, she would be affirming the power of federal employees to refuse to obey a supervisor’s order, and that’s just not going to happen. She cannot substitute her judgment relative to the wisdom of the order for that of the supervisor.

Tell employees what you want them to do, even if it’s something seemingly as minor as smiling. Apply progressive discipline to them when they don’t. Remove them if they become a three-striker. People can’t be forced to do what their supervisor tells them to do, but if they don’t, the supervisor has the authority to remove them from the civil service.

Remember that the next time your boss tells you to, “Have a nice day.” Better smile when he says that. Wiley@FELTG.com

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