By Dan Gephart, December 15, 2020

Back in pre-GPS days, my older brother and his wife were driving to a holiday celebration at her family’s house in a small backwoods New Jersey town. They were still many miles away from their destination when they hit a fork in the road. My brother turned to his wife and asked: Which way do we go?

She replied: It doesn’t matter.

My brother told me this story a couple of years ago. I had just moved to the Garden State and I was struggling to find some semblance of reasoning to the left-turn-denying, circle-embracing, ever-winding road system. His story perfectly encapsulated driving in New Jersey, where two roads going in seemingly opposite directions will sometimes lead to the same place.

A couple quick things about my brother. He’s an accountant. Everything comes down to cold hard numbers. Also, he’s a bit of a geek. That’s not an insult; he fully owns and embraces his nerdiness. Every purchasing decision he makes, no matter how minor, is based on extensive research, usually tracked on a complicated multi-column spreadsheet. So “it doesn’t matter which road we take” wasn’t going to work for him.

That December morning, he went right at that fork. He tracked the miles, counted the traffic lights, factored in the speed limits, and noted the potholes. Next time he made the trek, he turned left at the fork and made the same calculations. From then on, he got to his destination via the shortest, least-complicated route.

When it comes to supervising federal employees, all roads are forked. When conduct and performance challenges rise, supervisors are faced with a hard decision about which path to take. Unfortunately, they often take the one that seems less difficult, at least at the time. But the easy path is never easy.  You may eventually get to the same place, but it’s going to take longer and it could be quite painful for you and your agency.

Here’s a story we often hear, in one variation or another: An employee’s misconduct seems minor or simply annoying at first, so the supervisor ignores it. After a few more instances, the supervisor tells the employee: This has to stop. It doesn’t, and now the behavior is impacting the rest of the staff. The supervisor issues a Warning Letter. Instead of correcting behavior, the employee ratchets up the misconduct a few notches. It’s months later and the supervisor just wants to be rid of this employee.=

If you’re keeping score at home (and you’ve been to FELTG training), you’ll note that this supervisor has taken zero disciplinary actions so far. But what about when she admonished the employee, you ask? That’s not discipline. And neither is the Warning Letter. Letters of warning, caution, counseling, and requirement are what FELTG calls “lesser letters.” These lesser letters are not acts of discipline. But you know what they can be? Grievable. So by taking that “easy path,” this supervisor has basically just driven in circles – and put herself and her agency at risk. If you want to write a letter, start with a Letter of Reprimand. Now that is a disciplinary action. Read Ann Boehm’s September Good News column for more on how this action can save you time and money.

If back at the original fork in the road, the supervisor had taken a disciplinary action, say the aforementioned Letter of Reprimand, then she would be in a much better place now and further along to her destination.

FELTG is like my nerdy older brother. Instead of tracking miles and creating spreadsheets, we’re reading cases, studying the law, and reviewing regulations – and then sharing the strategy with you. FELTG’s Developing & Defending Discipline: Holding Federal Employees Accountable and UnCivil Servant: Holding Employees Accountable for Performance and Conduct courses give you the latest GPS coordinates to take necessary disciplinary or performance action in the most efficient way with the fewest potholes.

If you care about accountability, you can bring either of these courses to your agency. Just email me, and we’ll get your supervisors on the right path. Or you can register for our upcoming UnCivil Servant open enrollment virtual training, which takes place February 10-11 from 12:30 – 4 pm eastern. Gephart@FELTG.com

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