By Dan Gephart, December 13, 2022

Happy Holidays FELTG Nation! Welcome to the fourth annual year-end News Flash, where we unveil the most popular FELTG newsletter stories (based on the number of reads and forwards) of the previous 12 months.

The 2021 Year in Review was strewn with stories on vaccine mandates and other pandemic challenges. Even with my subpar math skills, I can figure out how many stories on those topics made it into this year’s top story list.

Zero.

That’s right. Pandemic-related issues haven’t disappeared. And our COVID-19 stories and guidance continued to receive a lot of eyeballs in recent months. However, pandemic-related stories were not among the top two most read and forwarded articles in any specific month this year. What were people reading then?

Considering this is the first time we’ve compiled the top story roundup with a full MSPB in place, it’s not surprising that a majority of the most-read stories involved new MSPB decisions. Since the MPSB returned to deciding cases, FELTG has been at the forefront of reading and interpreting them for Federal practitioners.

We continue to hold up our end of this bargain. Join FELTG President Deborah Hopkins on Feb. 14 for latest session of Back On Board: Keeping Up With the New MSPB, our quarterly two-hour review of the newest and most critical Board decisions.

Beyond new MSPB guidance, people read articles on harassment, union meetings, DEIA initiatives, and much more. Let’s take a look back month by month.

January

If you’ve ever been in a class taught by FELTG Instructor Ann Boehm, you’ve heard her refer to the Office of Folklore, or as it’s better known – OOF! OK, so it’s not a real office. Ann uses OOF to explain how bad information gets circulated as the truth. It happens a lot more than you’d think (or hope).

Here’s a specific example. We hear from many professionals who use the following equation to distinguish between performance and conduct cases: Can’t = performance and won’t = conduct. Ann tackles this federal employment law version of fake news in our most-read article of January. As Ann conveyed so clearly: Instead of can’t versus won’t, rely on the performance plan’s critical elements when deciding between a performance or misconduct action.

Speaking of performance, if your agency’s performance year coincides with the calendar year, you are likely working on performance narratives now. If that’s the case, FELTG Senior Instructor Barbara Haga has a clear message for you: It’s Time to Do Better. That message clearly resonated with readers.

February

According to a very unscientific poll (that means it’s my guess), February generated more shrieks of “WTF” in FELTG Nation than any other month.

People read about the ambulance company that failed to respond properly to a harassment allegation. Quick recap: An EMT was fired fewer than 24 hours after she received an unwelcome picture of a sexual nature from a coworker. Although it’s an older case that doesn’t involve a Federal agency, the story offers a lesson to Feds about the importance of investigations.

Meanwhile, Barbara’s tale of a staffing specialist hired AFTER recently facing a suspension AND being the subject of a sexual harassment investigation at his previous agency was the second most-read article.

March

So, you wonder: How did that staffing specialist get hired? It turns out, he lied on his SF-85Ps. You think that’s ridiculous? In Barbara’s March follow-up column, we find out why he lied.

Meanwhile, Ann Boehm provided some Good News for agencies when she answered thequestion: Does the union get to attend every meeting between me and an individual bargaining unit employee? Ann answers: “It depends, probably not as often as bargaining unit employees think.” She laid out specific guidance on when the union does have that right, per Weingarten meetings. No wonder it was most read story of the month.

April

It’s difficult to capture in writing the excitement at FELTG Headquarters in April. It wasn’t the
beginning of the baseball season or the arrival of spring. We had MSPB cases once again!

In this most-read article of April, Deb shared three lessons learned from the new MSPB’s decisions. Ann’s Good News: The Union Doesn’t Get to Attend Every Meeting, this time with the focus on formal meetings, was a close second.

May
If there is any theme running through this year’s top stories so far, it’s that 1) Barbara Haga writes a lot of stories about poor-performing or misbehaving officials who should really know better; and 2) you all love to read about them. You met the lying staff specialist in February and March and, in May, Barbara introduced you to a Chief Operating Officer who was removed for conduct unbecoming – the most-read story of May. [Hornsby v. FHFA is an important decision. Read Deb’s takeaways.]

On the flip side, we don’t hear much about supervisors being harassed by employees. Have you ever thought about filing an EEO complaint against an employee? Can you? In May’s second most popular story, Deb confirms that supervisors can file an EEO complaint. But it’s much quicker and more effective to handle the harassment as a conduct issue. In the particular case discussed in Deb’s story, a supervisor was harassed because of his sexual orientation.

June

Longtime residents of FELTG Nation are well aware of the trio of 2010 Board decisions on comparator employees that we dubbed the “Terrible Trilogy.” We preached again and again that these misguided decisions put too large of a burden on agencies to be consistent with agency-wide discipline. Twelve years later, the MSPB came around to the FELTG way with a decision that offered clear, specific, and reasoned guidance on who counts as a comparator employee in an adverse action under Douglas factor 6. Deb’s story on this important new case was our most-read article in June.

Not all cases can be groundbreaking, precedential decisions. But even relatively unremarkable, non-precedential MSPB decisions can teach or reaffirm best practices everyone should know, as FELTG Past President Bill Wiley discussed.

July

When it comes to whistleblowing cases, the MSPB has tended to interpret “covered personnel action” quite broadly. Not so anymore. Ann Boehm shares the Good News about a recent Board decision, reminding us that the employee has the burden to show a “significant change” in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions. It was the most-read story of July.

Meanwhile, Deb addressed the workplace struggle (for some) with pronouns – an important piece of the gender identity equation. Refusal to use an employee’s preferred pronoun, or name, has been problematic for agencies in recent years, not just from a liability perspective, but because of the impact of the harassment on the complainants.

August

Longtime Board observer Bill Wiley has been very impressed with the work of the new MSPB. Granted, like most practitioners, Bill was glad to see anything coming out of MSPB HQ after a five-year drought of decisions. Still, the occasionally cantankerous FELTG founder called the Board’s legal analyses “well-based and consistent with common sense, upholding much and modifying where necessary.”

But …

(You knew a but was coming.)

Bill found issue with one MSPB decision involving an employee initially removed for conduct unbecoming. The case gets much more complicated than that, and it involves a discussion of who gets to determine whether an employee is probationary. The most-read story of August definitely deserves another look.

As most of you know, FELTG not only offers open enrollment training, but we can come to your agency (onsite or virtually) to provide training for your team.

[I’m interrupting myself here to let you know: If you’re interested in this kind of training, contact me at Gephart@FELTG.com.]

We received a lot of inquiries for agency-specific training last year on the topic of harassment. But we received an interesting request along with many of those inquiries: Can you please also cover what is not harassment, especially when it comes to supervisory actions?

We’re talking setting deadlines. Creating a telework schedule. Enforcing a dress code. Providing performance feedback. As long as these supervisory actions are taken reasonably, they are not harassment. Can a supervisor cross the line from effectively supervising employees to creating a hostile work environment? Yes, it’s possible. Deb provides the clear distinction for what is and isn’t harassment.

September

Sleeping on the job. Conducting personal business while at work. Work remotely even though you’re required the employee to return to the physical workplace. Let me spell it out for you: A-W-O-L. Yes, it is possible to be Absent Without Leave even if you’re at work. And that includes working at a remote site.

Many of you worried when employees told you that they did not want to return to the physical workplace. It was a big enough concern to make this our top-read story of September.

Also in September, Deb shared an ugly case of harassment based on disability. A high-level supervisor mimicked an employee with a visible disability in a meeting with all of his coworkers. Here’s the takeaway for all agencies: Take prompt, corrective, and effective action against harassment.

October

During a training session, an attendee told Ann that her agency attorneys suggest “we always advise employees of their Weingarten right.” Ann was aghast. So, she wrote a Good News column explaining to readers the statutory language makes it crystal clear that the agency representative does not have any such obligation.

FELTG has been around for more than 20 years now. Since the beginning, we’ve told agency reps and supervisors that if you’re charging misconduct that begins with an F word (no, not F%@! for F%@! sake – we’re talking falsification, fraud, false ____, etc.), you better make sure you have evidence that the employee intentionally provided false information. There are numerous case law examples out there, and Deb shared a new case example from the MSPB in her popular October article.

November

Agencies have a right to expect a higher standard of conduct from officials who occupy positions of trust and responsibility. You know, supervisors, agency leaders, law enforcement officers, Senior Executive Service members. They should all know better, right? Well, you can add another category to that list — HR professionals.

In our top story of November, Deb wrote about an MSPB precedential decision involving a GS-9 supervisory specialist, who engaged in conduct, such as:

  • Calling subordinates “sexy” and “beautiful.”
  • Commenting on what a subordinate was wearing, including “you look nice,” and you “should wear dresses more often because [she] has nice legs.”
  • Leering.
  • Staring at a subordinate’s rear end.
  • Continuing to make comments even after the subordinates told him he had crossed a line.

An accident occurs at work, and the employee seeks workers’ compensation. But you (and others) think the employee was high or drunk when the accident occurred. An easy call, right – order a drug test, then decline the workers’ comp? Not so fast, guest columnist Frank Ferreri warns in our second most-read story of the month. Frank’s article is filled with case examples that provide a lot of insight.

December

When an agency loses a case, it’s more likely to be because of due process errors – and not the evidence. No wonder readers flocked to Deb’s story this month that offered due process lessons from three recent MSPB decisions.

FELTG Senior Instructor Barbara Haga has taught a lot of training sessions on the topic of reference checks, with a focus on making sure those doing the hiring have all the information they need from the applicants and previous employers. So, you can probably guess Barbara’s opinion on OPM’s newly released guidelines allowing agencies to use clean record agreements again. As Barbara said, you can use clean record agreements. But should you?

I’m not much of a prognosticator, but I’m sure MSPB decisions will make up a nice chunk of 2023’s Year in Review. But there will also be other issues that we can’t foresee. Regardless of the issue, we can guarantee that FELTG will be there to help you steer through any employment law challenges with the most up-to-date and engaging guidance – whether via web stories or in training classrooms.

Happy holidays and best wishes for a great 2023. Gephart@FELTG.com

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