By Dan Gephart, March 15, 2022

If you’ve been on email, text, or social media in the past couple of months, you’ve undoubtedly seen those ubiquitous green, yellow, and black squares. Maybe someone you know is obsessed with Wordle or, maybe you’re the one obsessed. Or, as it is in my family, everyone is obsessed.

Not familiar with Wordle? It’s a free daily Internet-based game where you get six guesses to figure out a five-letter word. On each turn, you guess a word. A space turns green if the letter is that exact location in the solution, yellow if the letter is in the word but in a different spot, and black if the letter is not in the word at all.

The rules of Wordle and the strategies developed to succeed at it can be applied to numerous situations, including those faced by Federal supervisors.

Your first move is important. Most Wordle players have a favorite first word. For some, it’s RATES, STARE, or another word with the common letters. Others prefer words like AUDIO or ADIEU so they can determine immediately which vowels are in the word.

Supervisors: First moves set the tone in the workplace, too. Your actions (or lack thereof) when first faced with an employee’s poor performance or misconduct send a strong message and set a precedent.

It’s not a secret that accountability is a huge problem in the Federal sector. Each year, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asks employees whether they agree with this statement: In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve. Only 42 percent of employees agreed with this statement in the most recent FEVS. Granted, that percentage has risen in recent years. But it’s still a sad statement that 58 percent of employees think supervisors don’t do enough to hold unacceptable performers accountable.

The confidence in managers to take appropriate action on misconduct isn’t much higher. When those problems repeat themselves later (and oh yes, they will), you will curse yourself for not acting earlier.

At FELTG, we’ve heard dozens of stories about managers who overlooked misconduct for months then suddenly decide to address with a suspension or removal. Remember that thing called progressive discipline? If you fail to act on conduct or performance problems, those problems may have well never happened, and you’re starting from scratch.

Don’t let that happen to you. Join us on the afternoons of May 24-25 for our flagship program UnCivil Servant: Holding Employees Accountable for Performance and Conduct.

Old-fashioned pen and paper are still useful. I dislike staring at a phone screen for a long time. However, Wordle sometimes gets particularly challenging. So, I pull out a pen and paper to figure it out. Sometimes seeing the letters in a different format helps to jostle free some solutions.

Supervisors: Going old school will help you jostle free some memories. As FELTG President Deborah Hopkins has pointed out numerous times during sessions and on this website, the cheapest but most valuable investment you can make is the purchase of a notebook.

“It might seem obvious, yet many supervisors don’t take the time to make contemporaneous notes,” Deb wrote. “You might never need them, but you’ll be very glad you have them if the situation calls for evidence in addition to your testimony.”

Everyone plays by the same rules. Not only is there only one Wordle per day, but it’s also the same puzzle for everyone. This is a key to Wordle’s success.

Supervisors: It’s important that agency rules and expectations are shared clearly with everyone. Remember, it’s the agency’s burden when imposing discipline to prove not only that the rule exists, but that the employee knew (or should have known) the rule.

There are several ways to inform employees of a rule, such as bringing it up in a staff meeting, posting to a bulletin board, sending out an email, or covering it during a training session. Or a combination of these options, with the follow-up email ensuring it reaches all employees.

Watch your language. When the New York Times purchased Wordle recently, a newspaper representative promised few, if any, changes with one exception: The Times would be removing offensive words from the game. This includes curse words, as well as sexist and racist terms. For those who like to type the kind of five-letter NSFW terms that make middle schoolers giggle, there’s always Lewdle and Swerdle.

Supervisors: Unless you’re involved in a “robust” discussion with the union, you will be held accountable for your speech. Words matter. And we’re not talking swear words. Beware of biased language. That would be words or phrases that demean or exclude people because of age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, or other categories.

If you’re scoffing to yourself about “censorship” or “political correctness,” get yourself to one or more of FELTG’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility classes. There’s still time to register for today’s Nondiscriminatory Hiring in the Federal Workplace: Advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility or Promoting Diversity, Enforcing Protections for LGBTQ Employees on June 9.

Don’t try something that you already know doesn’t work. The black squares in Wordle denote that the letter you selected is not in the word. So why use another word with that letter again?

Supervisors: The best thing about mistakes is that you learn from them. But, how many times have you found yourself about to follow the same darn process you followed unsuccessfully before?

Here’s an even safer option: Learn from other people’s mistakes. In FELTG training, we like to share mistakes supervisors have made either via our instructors’ own experiences or through legal cases. Perfect example: Reasonable Accommodation: The Mistakes Agencies Make, a 60-minute webinar held on April 21.

You don’t get do-overs. Wordle only offers one puzzle per day. If you fail to get the word in six tries, you feel awful and want to immediately try again. But you’re going to have to wait until the next day for your next chance.

Supervisors: Supervisors are, rightly so, held to a higher standard than line-level employees. It’s right there in the second Douglas factor, which suggests that, when disciplining, agencies consider: The employee’s job level and type of employment, including supervisory or fiduciary role, contacts with the public, and prominence of the position.

Here’s the thing: Unlike Wordle, you may not get another chance the next day. Remember your role, your agency mission and do the best that you can to adequately prepare to handle any challenges that come your way.

Despite being five letters, F-E-L-T-G is an acronym and so it wouldn’t be a solution for Wordle, but we can be a solution for your training needs. [email protected]

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