By William Wiley

Here at FELTG, we do a LOT of training for supervisors. We really enjoy helping front line managers learn the procedures the law provides for dealing with poor performers and civil servants who don’t follow the rules. And during those sessions, we hear a LOT about what supervisors think about their legal and human resources support staffs.

One of the more common comments we get, and perhaps the most infuriating, is this: “Bill, I’d like to do it that way, by my solicitor won’t let me.” Man, oh man, does that comment make us cringe. With rare exception – and I mean really rare exception – the authority to hold agency employees accountable is delegated to the line managers who have been hired to run the place, not to the lawyers who are responsible for providing advice. Where do lawyers (or human resources specialists) get off telling line managers what to do when it comes to initiating discipline and performance removals?

Perhaps it started in law school, when the attorney-in-training took all those management classes.

Ha, ha, ha. That’s a little joke. Nary a law school in the country requires that its students take courses in how to manage a federal agency. OPM doesn’t have any minimum training requirements for staff attorneys to take management classes once hired into government. So your typical agency attorney, though perhaps highly competent in the skills necessary to be a lawyer, has zilch formal education in the science of management.

Well, maybe those skills necessary to be a highly competent attorney are easily transferrable to the field of agency management. Perhaps whatever it takes to be a good lawyer is also what it takes to be a business manager.

No, they aren’t. In fact, the skills necessary to be a good lawyer are sometimes antithetical to what it takes to be a good manager. Take risk-avoidance for example.  Lawyers are trained to do whatever it takes to reduce the risk involved in an action, to consider every possible bad outcome, no matter how remote, and to include language in the contract or argument in the brief to cover that possibility. In the world of federal employment law, that means a lawyer would be likely to want to avoid the possibility of losing an appeal, even if that possibility was slight.

In the business world, hesitation can cost a company a lost opportunity. Nobody wants to lose, but risk of loss in the management of an agency is sometimes worth the benefit of the gain that can result from success. When I was a baby in this business back in the ‘70s, I remember trying to talk a Navy commanding officer into settling an appeal because if we were to lose, it might cost the Navy “over ten thousand dollars.” He gave me one of those over-the-spectacle looks that seasoned people give to newbies and said, “Young man [I knew I was about to be put in my place when he started off with that], last month I spilled $30,000 worth of fuel refueling my jets. Do you really think that I care about another ten grand?” He was making a business decision for which I did not have a perspective. And that’s exactly what he was supposed to do.

Last year, I was lassoed during a break in one of our open-enrollment seminars by an attorney who worked in an agency for which FELTG recently had been doing a lot of onsite supervisory training. She was upset that we were teaching her agency’s supervisors what accountability options were available without considering “the culture” of the agency. In other words, we were telling supervisors what they could do, and her office (the Office of Culture, I’m guessing) didn’t want them to know what they had the authority to do.

On another occasion when I was speaking to a group of agency attorneys in an onsite course for an agency, I stressed (as I always do) how important it is to get the employee out of the workplace once a removal has been proposed. One of the attorneys in the group promptly informed me that “We don’t do that here” because “it would look bad in the papers” to have an employee on administrative leave during the 30-day notice period. She was making her decision on what “we do” based on her view as an attorney safely ensconced down the hall in her office behind a locked door. The poor line manager, who should by all rights be making the decision, would be the one sitting around the corner from the about-to-be-terminated employee, directly in the line of fire, should the employee snap and become violent.

Line managers should be making line management decisions, not agency attorneys and human resources specialists. Our job is to provide advice and counsel, not to direct and tell. The concept of “HR won’t let me do that” should disappear from the workplace. We are a service entity, not a line component. If we are advising a line manager who wants to do something we think to be bad for the agency, our job is to run that issue up the chain of command of that manager, not to interject our own style of management into our client.  And I stress the word “client” as that should be the nature of our relationship with the manager.

Think of yourself in private practice. How much income do you think you would have if business people came to you for your legal counsel and you instead took it on yourself to tell them how to run their business and how to make business decisions? If you want to decide what “we do” around here or what “the culture” should be, start a business and become accountable for your decisions. Until then, if you are an agency advisor – attorney or otherwise – do America a favor. Fulfill your consultant role to the best of your ability and allow line managers to make the decisions that are their role to fulfill.

Take it from someone who has been on both sides. It’s easy to tell someone what they cannot do. It’s much harder and more important to help them do what they’ve decided to do. [email protected]

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