By Dan Gephart, February 10, 2021

Mountweazel. I just love this word. I discovered it last week as I was reading Liar’s Dictionary, a new novel by Eley Williams. Neither a steep scalable landmass nor a rat-sized mammal, a mountweazel is a bogus entry inserted into a dictionary, encyclopedia or other reference work as a trap to catch future copyright infringers.

About midway through Williams’ novel, the protagonist Mallory is charged with finding the mountweazels left behind when the fictional reference book was first published more than a century ago. All of the fake words must be found before the publisher posts the reference book online. The problem is Mallory knows not where the mountweazels are nor even how many there are. (OK, I get it, a John LeCarre spy thriller this most certainly is not.)

Picture Mallory sludging through thousands of dictionary entries to find the fake words. It gives me a headache just thinking about it, and I love words. When overused, used incorrectly, or improperly communicated (all were the case in the novel), mountweazels make it harder to accomplish the mission, which in Mallory’s case was digitizing an accurate reference book.

So here’s my question: What mountweazels are keeping your agency from meeting its mission? Not fake words, but unnecessary or improperly communicated procedures.  When it comes to discipline and performance, to paraphrase a certain insurance commercial, we’ve seen a mountweazel or two. (Bum ba dum bum bum bum bum.)

Back in 2017, FELTG Past President Bill Wiley was tired of hearing from supervisors who took useless actions like Letters of Admonishments and Letters of Caution to address wayward employees. Supervisors would take these actions because they were easy and, they assumed, if the same situation arose again, they could say they’ve taken prior disciplinary action. But guess what? These actions are not discipline as defined by case law. The action was a temporary Band-aid that did nothing to address the root of the issue, and, more often than not, the suspect behavior would continue unabated. Even worse, these empty actions are actually grievable, putting the supervisor and the agency on the defensive.

So Bill created the “yellow donut.” If you’ve taken part in FELTG’s UnCivil Servant training over the last couple of years, then you’ve seen the graphic. It’s the yellow donut that looks more like a three-tiered bullseye. (Seriously, are you going to pay attention to a donut or a bullseye?) The outer edge is the illegal stuff that you should never do, and you most likely don’t. (Please tell me you don’t.) The inner red part is the good stuff that FELTG teaches, which is the legal minimum, things you must do.

The largest tier in between the inner and outer is the yellow part. That’s the mountweazels of donuts of unnecessary actions, keeping you and your agency from meeting the mission. These actions are perfectly legal, but not worth using. Each unnecessary action is a barrier to a swift, effective, and legally sufficient conduct or performance-based action. Keep your stumbling blocks to a minimum.

If you’re vegan or on a New Year’s Resolution Whole 30 kick, you might eschew the donut for FELTG Instructor Ann Boehm’s approach. During her federal career, Ann has also seen far too many unnecessary actions taking place. Why, why, why Ann would ask. The reason, she has been told is: “That’s what HR told us to do.” Ann spelled this out in her Good News column in the January 2020 newsletter, when she introduced readers to The Office of Folklore, know more affectionately as OOF! That newsletter article included a checklist, which empowers supervisors to demonstrate to the folklorists there is a better and more direct way to handle the situation. (Print the story and cut out the checklist now. I’ll wait.)

I hope you are part of the UnCivil Servant: Holding Employees Accountable for Performance and Conduct virtual training we are holding starting today. If not, then put a hold on these dates —  May 19-20. That’s when we’ll be holding the class again. Or you can bring that course directly to your agency (in person or virtually). Email me ([email protected]) and we can discuss.

If you’ve attended UnCivil Servant previously, join us for UnCivil Servant – Next Level on March 11, where you’ll be able to put the tools you learned in the original class to the test with some challenging and realistic scenarios.

These courses were designed to help you determine the minimum steps to take effective and legally defensible performance and conduct actions. We’re not doing this to make your job easier, although it will.  The more unnecessary steps you take when addressing discipline and performance problems, the harder it gets, the longer it takes, the more likely you are to make a mistake – and the further you get away from mission. [email protected]

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