By Barbara Haga, February 15, 2022

In August 2020, I wrote about a case involving an HR official who sent racists texts about other employees to subordinates, which the subordinates reported. Jenkins v. Department of Transportation, No. 2019-2075 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 6, 2020).

Jenkins, the HR official, was removed for (1) inappropriate conduct, (2) making disparaging remarks racial in nature, and (3) lack of candor. The Federal Circuit upheld the charges and the removal.

Jenkins had made several attempts to avoid responsibility. For example, her initial response was that she didn’t send the texts, then she said she didn’t remember sending them, and finally she argued that the texts were sent from her personal phone and, thus, not the agency’s business. None of these attempts worked.

I didn’t think I would be shocked by this kind of HR practitioner lack of candor again, but I recently found a case that I missed in the weekly MSPB report that summer, because this one was issued the very next day. The case is Freeland v. Department of Homeland Security, No. 2020-1344 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 7, 2020).  Before we get to the lack of candor charge, let’s look at the hiring of this individual by DHS.

Freeland’s Story

Freeland was removed in 2017 from the position of Supervisory Human Resources Specialist in the Recruitment and Placement Branch of a DHS Human Resources Operations Center.  Supervisory staffing positions would typically be concerned with ensuring that appointees are qualified for the jobs they are placed in, and that the required drug tests, physicals, and background checks are completed. Basically, their job is to ensure that the recruitment process is carried out properly and that appointments are legal.

Prior to working for DHS, Freeland had held the same type of position at an Army Civilian Human Resources organization. He resigned in May 2015 after he was issued a proposed 14-day suspension for negligent performance of duties. At the time of his resignation, he was also the subject of a workplace sexual harassment investigation. DHS brought Freeland to work on Sept. 20, 2015. Yes, that’s right. They hired a supervisory HR specialist four months after he resigned from another supervisory HR specialist position. His SF-50 stated that he gave no reason for resignation.

Given what transpired with his security paperwork, which led to the lack of candor charge, it seems that DHS hired Freeland without knowing about the prior issues.

I regularly teach classes on interviewing and reference checking. It’s important. You don’t need to bring another agency’s problem child onto your rolls. Freeland’s recent work history should have been a flashing red light to anyone looking at his resume.  He resigned with no reason given.

That’s Strange

A staffing specialist resigns with no reason given? That’s strange. He applies very quickly to come back to the government in a similar position? That’s strange.

Federal employees and staffing folks who understand what it takes to get back onto the Federal rolls from the outside, don’t resign. They apply for reassignments and transfers and promotions.

Did DHS interview Freeland? I would have asked what his reason was for resigning since none was given. He didn’t have to answer. He might have made up some story, but I would ask. I would also routinely ask:

  • Have you been the subject of any sort of performance counseling in the past appraisal cycle? If so, what was the outcome of the counseling?
  • Have you been questioned and/or counseled by your supervisor about any type of disciplinary infraction in the past year? If so, what was the outcome?

Suggested Questions

If I am interviewing for a supervisory position, I would ask something like, “If I contacted your supervisor and asked about your three major accomplishments in your supervisory position, what would he or she say?” I would let Freeland know that I was going to follow up on these issues with his past supervisor.

If he said I couldn’t contact his last supervisor? I would tell him that it’s highly unlikely he would fare well in the rest of the process if I could not validate the information he provided. If he didn’t give permission, I would be very unlikely to hire him.

It’s important to follow up on these questions. In this case, Freeland’s selecting official should be an even higher-level supervisor in HR so he/she/they should have known that an in-depth reference check was needed.

Freeland’s Army supervisor should have been asked the same things.

  • The SF-50 provided doesn’t give a reason for Freeland’s resignation. Are you aware of a reason? (Remember there is no settlement here, so the agency wasn’t prohibited from releasing information by terms of a contract.)
  • Did you counsel Freeland about any type of performance deficiencies in the past appraisal cycle? What happened as a result?
  • Did you have occasion to question or counsel Freeland about a disciplinary matter in the past year? What was the outcome of that?
  • What were the three most important contributions Freeland made as a supervisor?

One of my final questions would be: “If Freeland was eligible for a promotion and you had a vacant job at the higher grade that you could put him in today, would you?” Unless that Army supervisor (who is also an HR Specialist) is a seasoned prevaricator, you are likely to get him/ her/them to spill the beans during the conversation.

Freeland was issued a 14-day suspension notice on negligent performance of duties. We don’t know whether this was negligence related to his staffing/recruitment duties or his supervisory functions, but I think using the in-depth questions I described might get you to a point where you figure out that something isn’t right. As far as the sexual harassment investigation, there may have been no conclusions from that at the time he departed his Army job, but that could have come later. (I will do a column on annotating investigations per provisions included in the NDAA for FY 2017 in the near future.)

I was working with a supervisor on a GS-14 performance plan a week ago, and he was complaining that he had picked up a problem employee from another agency. He was upset with the losing supervisor. He said, “I did a reference check, and that person didn’t tell me the truth.” I knew he was frustrated. It didn’t change anything we were doing, so I didn’t press the issue, but I really wanted to know what questions he asked.

Did he ask, “Is this person reliable?” The answer could be yes. The work is barely acceptable, but they always turn something in on time.

Did he ask, “Is the person regular in their attendance?” The answer could also be yes. The person is always there, but they don’t do much when they are there. The losing supervisor might technically have answered what she was asked truthfully.

Without getting into in-depth areas like the questions described above, your selecting officials may not find out about issues that would cause them to move on to another candidate.

Next month, we will look at what happened once Freeland was brought on board. [email protected]

[Editor’s note: Would you like to bring Barbara Haga’s Successful Hiring: Effective Techniques for Interviewing and Reference Checking to your agency, either on-site or virtually? contact Training Director Dan Gephart at [email protected].]

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