By Barbara Haga, July 21, 2021

Over the past two columns, we reviewed what position descriptions should cover to give you maximum ability to determine qualifications, establish accountability, and to hire well. We also looked at crafting performance standards that effectively build on position requirements. There’s another aspect of establishing accountability that often ties in with the position description. That’s setting conduct requirements. This brings us back to the issue I started with when I began this series.

The idea expressed by a supervisor was that if something wasn’t in the performance plan, she wouldn’t be able to hold the employee accountable for it. If that “something” was how well a particular job function was performed – was it done correctly, in accordance with policy, on time, notifying appropriate team members or customers. etc. – she would have been correct. However, what she had in the standards was a requirement for an accountant to take continuing education courses toward a Financial Management Certification.

There seems to be a myth out there in the world of Federal HR that the performance plan is intended to cover everything that happens between 8 and 4:30 (or whatever your schedule is).  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The performance plan only captures how well the individual performs on those things covered in the critical elements as measured by the performance standards. All other things inevitably fall into the conduct world if things go wrong.  If the individual can’t meet medical standards, we would be looking at a conduct action. If the employee loses his membership in the bar, a performance action wouldn’t make any sense since the employee couldn’t perform the duties to begin with. If the employee misuses a travel card, the remedy will come from the conduct world.

Setting Conduct Standards 

The amazing thing about setting standards regarding conduct is that most of the time employees will comply.  My experience tells me that most people will stay within the lines – if they know where they are. The problem is that sometimes employees aren’t told where those lines are.

In many of my classes, I am teaching HR practitioners and managers from large, unionized agencies. In those agencies there are usually detailed handbooks and policies controlling employment matters, and union contract provisions add additional detail to what is contained in the agency documents.

Sometimes, I am at a small agency where they don’t have that sort of structure. This issue usually comes up quickly in a leave class. Even though I should be ready for it, I am often surprised. It starts like this:

Me:  When employees don’t call in for emergency leave within the allotted time frame, you could disapprove the leave. So, what is the allotted time frame here?

Students: (Blank stares.)

Me: (I think they didn’t understand what I meant.) How long does an employee have to call in for unscheduled annual leave or sick leave here?

Students: (Uncomfortable wiggling in chairs begins. But no response.)

Me: (Maybe an example would help them.)  In many Federal agencies, there is a set time frame like two hours from the start of the shift or one hour prior to the start of the shift for certain jobs.

Students: (Eyes cutting around the room.)

Finally, some brave soul admits they don’t have a policy on this, and they have never told their employees anything. Employees call in when they choose to.

If there are no standards for something like short-notice leave, then I would suspect that employees are not likely to be clear on many other things, such as when Government property can be removed, what happens when employees engage in harassment, and other similar issues.

Not only is that poor management, but it would also make it difficult getting past Douglas Factor number 9, regarding whether the employee knew or should have known that what she was doing was wrong.

Clarifying Expectations

Not everything is something that a supervisor need create.  For example, jobs that require licenses and certificates usually are covered by some type of agency guideline that explains what types of certificates are required for what grades. For example, DoD sets very specific requirements for firefighters and paramedics.

The same thing applies for IT professionals and contracting positions. The policies may also explain what happens when someone fails to get a certificate or license on the first try. Even with these policies in place, it would behoove the supervisor to make clear what happens if there is a failure. There may be a grace period and an opportunity to retest.  But, if an employee fails the retest, then typically the answer is that the individual can’t hold the position. For some jobs where the license is required to be qualified to enter and hold the position, such as a driver’s license or a medical clearance, there likely isn’t a grace period to try to retest. The employee can’t be allowed to perform the duties without the license.

I wrote a series of articles for the FELTG Newsletter in early 2019 on conditions of employment cases. One of the cases I wrote about was a firefighter who was also an EMT. He hid the fact that he had let his EMT certification lapse. The fact that he did not inform management would lead one to believe that he understood the consequences of practicing his level of medicine without a license. Saline v. Army, DE-0752-14-0567-I-1 (2015)(ID).

What other types of things might managers need to explain? What would happen if an employee needed to take government property out of the facility?  What kind of documentation is necessary? What would happen if the proper permissions weren’t obtained, and the individual is caught with that government property?  Is there an agency guideline on this topic that employees are expected to follow?

When could an employee use their personal vehicle for work purposes and how do they pay for gas? This question comes from an actual case. A GS-14 criminal investigator was removed based on credit card misuse because he used his travel card to buy the gas.  Apparently, the agency policy was to apply for mileage reimbursement. There was no allegation that he used the gas for anything other than official business. The proposing and deciding officials testified that they “assumed” that he knew the policy requirement. Needless to say, the Board mitigated the penalty. Johnson v. Treasury, 15 MSPR 731 (1983), aff’d without opinion (Fed. Cir. Jul. 22, 1983).

It’s clear that there are many things with conduct consequences that would warrant explanation by the supervisor, but none of them need to be in the performance plan for the employee to be held accountable.


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