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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Accepting Injustice

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Blowing the whistle or challenging a boss' actions is always a tough call. Many federal managers and employees might simply accept injustice, because they don't want to go through the legal and personal roller coasters of righting a wrong. Rather than raise a stink, they bite their tongues and lay low. Or they find another job.

At one Cabinet agency, for example, a manager allegedly asked an employee how much she had contributed to the Republican Party. The employee told the manager he wasn't allowed to ask that, but feared she would suffer the consequences. She looked for another job. The question would be a prohibited practice under the federal law that protects civil servants from management decisions based on party affiliation. But hiring a lawyer, sitting in career limbo and playing he-said-shesaid games was an unappealing plan for the employee.

Alternatives are available to federal employees who think their bosses have broken laws or have been unethical. Bargaining unit employees can ask union representatives for help filing a grievance. Employees, both union and nonunion, can seek out the Office of Special Counsel for whistleblower protection, the Merit Systems Protection Board for appeals of disciplinary actions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discrimination protection, or the Labor Department for protection of veterans' rights. Most agencies have an internal process before going to the appeals agencies.

But most appeal processes are complex and heavily legalistic, built on various statutes, numerous regulations and years of case law. The processes are slow, sometimes taking months or years. Many employees would rather move on than face an uncertain outcome. It's a sad fact of life in the civil service that even with so many appeal outlets, a majority of employees don't feel protected from injustice. In a federal human capital survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management in 2002, just 45 percent said arbitrary action, favoritism and coercion for political purposes are not tolerated; only 44 percent agreed that complaints, disputes or grievances were resolved fairly in their work units.

The Bush administration is pushing for even fewer checks and balances on managers' actions. Both the Homeland Security and the Defense departments are moving to personnel systems that give more deference to agency leadership, and the White House would like to see other agencies follow suit. Opponents say such changes would only contribute to more injustice and distrust in the bureaucracy. Proponents say workers would be protected, even with streamlined appeals processes.

Interestingly, the OPM survey found that employees in the handful of offices that already had streamlined appeals were slightly more likely to say arbitrary action by managers was dealt with properly. That still leaves about half the workforce feeling that bad behavior is tolerated. Perhaps some of that distrust is human nature. In the survey, the further down the chain of command employees were, the more likely they were to distrust their leaders. It is a natural tendency for people who are more removed from decision-makers to be more skeptical. There's also a dose of reality in the distrust. A single case of political intimidation that makes it into the grapevine can cause thousands of employees to watch their backs.

Given the power of such anecdotes, part of the answer to building faith in the meritocracy rests with leaders at the agencies bestowed with more authority to fire and hire. If they hear of a supervisor improperly using political or other nonmerit-based reasons to decide a worker's fate, they should fire that manager and publicize it. The only way employees will believe that injustice will not be accepted is to deal with it forcefully.

 
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