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The Federal Coach

Managing the fear of cutbacks among federal workers

The high-decibel election season that came to a conclusion last week prompted a number of proposals to reduce the size and cost of government, with the federal workforce becoming a prime target for a hiring freeze, a pay freeze, furloughs or other possible cutbacks.

With Republicans set to take control of the House of Representatives in January, many of these proposals will be on the legislative front-burner and, in time, some may become reality. This understandably is causing a great deal of anxiety and fear among federal workers, who can only watch and wait as the political drama plays out.

In the midst of this uncertainty, I'm reminded of Mark Twain's quote about worrying: "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."

While your inclination as a manager may be to tell your employees to shrug off worrying about future events you cannot control, that doesn't always work. I know, I'm a worrier myself. I find I'm more relaxed at the end of the day if I prepare for the worst, while quietly hoping for the best.

As a result, I reached out to federal workforce expert and Partnership for Public Service colleague John Palguta and to senior leaders across government to collect their thoughts about how federal leaders can best manage the fear among employees. Here's some of their advice--and some of my own.

Keep the focus on the mission. One leader I spoke with said, "You cannot cut your way to quality." Remind your employees that what really matters is the organization's ability to deliver results to the American public.

Find out what concerns your employees have. Maybe your employees are less worried than you are or maybe not. A good way to find out is to simply ask them and then you'll have a better idea of what you need to deal with, if anything.

Help separate fact from fiction. For every employee who has ever been negatively affected by an actual furlough or reduction in force, there have been many, many more that were not affected but were convinced they were going to be. Let your employees know that you'll share any good or bad news as soon as you receive it.

Ask your employees for cost-saving ideas and suggestions. At the heart of many of these discussions is a desire or a mandate to reduce costs. Recognizing that people are an agency's most important asset, the federal leaders I'm talking with are looking at ways to cut costs with minimal impact on the people. Ask your staff for creative ideas on how to get the job done and save money.

Finally, keep the channels of communication open in all directions. As a manager, it's important that you know as much as possible about what's happening and that you share as much as possible with you employees.

Of course, this is only a short list of ideas for how you can best manage the fear among your employees. I'm always interested in hearing from experienced leaders who've been through this experience before, as well as younger leaders who have new ideas for navigating the rough road that may lie ahead.

Please send me your ideas by posting your comments online or sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org. And please check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Dr. Thomas Waldmann, chief of the metabolism branch at the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. For more than five decades, Waldmann has made cutting-edge science discoveries that have resulted in great advances in treatment for patients with multiple sclerosis, various types of cancer and AIDS.

By Tom Fox

 |  November 8, 2010; 8:37 AM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I think the biggest issue I have with Republicans threatening to lay me off, furlough me, freeze or cut my pay, or whatever is that it's a political move. They sell the idea that all government is bad and that it's all contained within the Beltway (as if that somehow contained one of the levels of Hades). First off, something like 83% of the Federal Government is not in Washington, DC, so they really are only hurting their home districts. Second, government provides a lot of services to people that they like: things like clean air and water, a safe air traffic control system, bridges and roads that allow them to travel, health care for veterans, social security payments to retirees, and more. Most Federal Employees work damn hard- I know I do. Casting us as a bunch of slackers who do nothing for the people is just flat out a lie. Third, if the GOP wants to cut the deficit, why focus on a relatively small thing like the civil service. Why not focus on eliminating a $750B unfunded tax cut? Oh wait... because Federal employees who make no more than $400,000 per year aren't their constituency- the CEO's who make more than a million are.

I've been laid off before, and I could at least deal with the fact that it was a business decision. This isn't a business decision, it's a political one. Perhaps when I get to vote on whether or not the greeter at Walmart gets a pay raise will I think this is fair. Until then, get your hands off me GOP

Posted by: mkelm441 | November 12, 2010 12:57 PM

PanamaJack does have a point when he says that if we are given enough notice we can deal with a furlough.
I've been with the government for 15 years and fortunately I am in a position where while I don't like the idea of furloughs or pay cuts or even pay freezes, I can work with them. But there is nothing that I can do for myself or anyone else if I am unemployed. Just take a number and keep in mind that there are 45 million poor souls ahead of me.

Posted by: tvwells | November 9, 2010 5:57 PM

The number one method to deficit reduction is a tax base from the employed. This is a vicious cycle.

Posted by: CultureClub | November 9, 2010 5:37 PM

If this country is to survive deep cuts will be necessary. That includes steep cuts in the federal work force. We can't exist at this deficit level. There is growing concern that China will soon quit buying our bonds. If they do the game is over. The US will be bankrupt and we go under. The Federal Reserve's buying 600 billion in debt with funny money is about the worst thing that could have happened. Watch the G20 summit to see how that goes. China is furious with us. It signals that we are almost at rock bottom. So having the "it's not going to happen mindset" isn't going to work. Not only will all entitlements cease but deep layoffs are necessary. Welcome to the rest of America. The spending has to stop.

Posted by: Desertdiva1 | November 9, 2010 3:47 PM

As a fed who manages large programs (hundreds of millions plus) with only one staff member at HQ and 4 more in the field to back me up - I can't do any more with any less. I've been doing more with less for years. Give me less money to program - but don't take away my people, I've never had enough staff in the first place. Of course, since I manage programs related to national security...that isn't going to happen. Sigh.

Posted by: vickistired | November 9, 2010 3:13 PM

PanamaJack, I'm a 27 year employee with the Corps of Engineers and I've given more than half of my backside in service to this country. I have literally devoted my adult life to the American public. I sucked it up when the ENRON execs stole my investment money. I sucked it up when Lehman Brothers stole my money. I'm still sucking it up while I wait for someone to be sentenced to repay the debt they owe ME. I didn't go to work for the Corps to be wealthy. But I damn sure didn't take the responsibility to have a president set up his cronies and donors for massive gains by theft of my, and millions of other American's, retirement funds either. You go home and jump up and down and tell everyone how much of a patriot you are. I want my job and I want my money back. I EARNED them both. I don't think it's too much to ask. Bush, Cheney, and Donald Rumdum are criminals. The current leaders of the oil and gas industry are their spawn. The leaders of Wall Street are their spawn. All of them should be held accountable in a court of law. But if you have your way, PanamaJack, I'll get to go home with no pay because those filthy SOB's set us up to fail while they counted their cash. Shove your suggestion, sir.

Posted by: du2044 | November 9, 2010 2:11 PM

I'm a federal employee so let me establish that fact immediately. I'm going against the grain here, but I think the civil service and foreign service in DC should bear a hand in cutting back just like the private sector does. This nonsense of everybody else needs to cut back but me because I'm special is a load of crap that's gone on long enough. Besides, I don't think the civil service has any room to gripe with so many of my "colleagues" either owing so much in back taxes or evading them all together. If it requires furloughs, then so be it. Given enough notice, we can all adjust paying our bills to reflect that. We can adjust our workloads to accommodate more if necessary. The nation is in bad economic shape. The problem is OURS, each and every one of us. Everyone should bear a hand to fix it. Some will bear more of a hand (pay more), but everyone should bear a hand. The public sector unions be d@mned in this.

Posted by: panamajack | November 9, 2010 11:35 AM

issa has the house but dems have the senate and the white house....while there may be some pain for feds, rifs and shut down talk is just that, talk.

Posted by: dem4life1 | November 9, 2010 10:12 AM

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