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All Ears

Good managers don’t just listen, they respond and act.

In 2004, a Justice Department section chief went to the head of her division, an assistant attorney general, with a problem. She told him she was concerned that one of his four deputy assistant attorney generals was hiring unqualified applicants.

She did not drop the bigger bombshell-that she thought the deputy was employing them based on their political and ideological affiliations. Later she told investigators that she was not "bold enough" to make such a strong allegation. After all, considering political views in civil service hiring decisions is against the law.

Regardless, she did raise a specter of doubt. The division chief listened, but he did not act. Instead, he told her to talk to the second-in-command, the principal deputy assistant attorney general.

So, she went to the principal deputy assistant attorney general and raised her concern about the official hiring unqualified applicants. The principal deputy listened, but he did not act. Instead, he simply told her that the deputy was in charge of hiring, and that was that.

The section chief was not alone in her quandary. It was widely known throughout the division that the deputy in charge of hiring believed most of the career attorneys were über-liberal and that he wanted to get more conservatives into the division, the Justice Department's inspector general said in a report released in January. The IG found that of the 65 attorneys hired by the deputy for whom political affiliation was clear, 63 were conservative or Republican.

The deputy also had transferred three attorneys he viewed as liberal and replaced them with two he viewed as conservative, an action that rattled career employees and managers.

When a new division chief took over in 2005, he was well aware of the deputy's preferences and improper hiring actions. He told investigators that he didn't like the actions the deputy had taken. Instead of reprimanding him, raising concerns up the chain of command or putting someone else in charge of hiring, the new chief waited out the deputy, who became a U.S. attorney outside the Beltway a few months later.

Both division leaders heard complaints and concerns. But even "in light of indications they had about [the deputy's] conduct and judgment, they failed to ensure that [the deputy's] hiring and personnel decisions were based on proper considerations," the IG found.

Some people complain that their leaders don't listen. But a more common criticism is leaders hear employees' concerns but do nothing about them. If a leader is all ears and no action, what's the point of listening? That's especially true in cases like the one at the Justice Department, where allegations of improper and illegal behavior were heard but waved aside.

Government managers often say they don't have the authority to deal with such concerns, or they don't have the backing of their superiors, or it's such a hassle to handle employee complaints that it's better to give them time to go away on their own.

But leaders are responsible for what goes on within their chains of command. That's true even of things they don't know about. Things they do know about rise to an even higher level. Once leaders have a clue that something improper might be happening, they have a duty to do something about it. If a leader doesn't do anything with the allegations they hear, then they become more than just responsible. They become culpable.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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