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The Federal Coach

Tucson tragedy: Managing safety concerns of your federal workforce

The tragedy in Tucson has captured the nation's attention and increased the anxiety of some federal employees--everywhere from the Internal Revenue Service to the U.S. Postal Service--that they too may face the threat of violence simply by doing their jobs.

As the Washington Post chronicled last week, reported attacks on federal employees are on the rise. The Department of Justice has already filed charges against 84 defendants this year, and there were 320 cases during 2010. There are countless other cases where federal employees have faced hostile and upsetting encounters with the public that either have gone unreported or have not resulted in law enforcement involvement.

Fortunately, given the size of the federal workforce and its geographic dispersion, incidents of workplace violence are actually quite rare. However, violent attacks and threats have occurred--and they can be frightening to our public servants who are working on our behalf each and every day.

As a federal leader, how can you handle the fear emerging among your team? After talking with leaders that I know, here are some ideas to help you manage your employees' fears:

Open the door. Individuals on your team may not want to admit to being afraid, so I encourage you to speak with your team during a staff meeting or on an individual basis to assess their concerns. At the very least, having a conversation offers your team an opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of those who have been involved in the incident.

Assess the threat. Do an honest assessment of the degree to which employee concerns are justified. Have there been actual threats made or carried out at your agency? Are there reasonable steps that can be taken to reduce even further the possibility of workplace violence? These steps can include hiring additional security guards, providing more secure access to the workplace and installing security cameras.

Provide real-time reporting. If anything should happen at your agency or to your employees, be certain to share as much relevant information as soon as possible. One federal leader that I spoke with stressed the importance of getting the facts out to your team immediately, even if they are incomplete. This is critical for preventing rumors and for giving employees not involved in the incident a sense of security.

Make it personal. Whether the threat is general or specific, remote or real-time, make certain that you don't forget to add a personal touch to any messaging you deliver. Your team will need sincere leadership during times of distress.

It's also important to remember that as a federal leader you need to put your employees' fears into perspective. The goal is not to convince them that there's no basis to their fears--even an unfounded fear has an emotional consequence to the person who holds it. Rather the objective is to try to help your employees understand that the statistical likelihood of being a victim is quite small and that the actions you, your team and agency are taking will help make the probability even smaller.

This is just a starting point for ideas on how to manage the fear that your employees may be experiencing. Please share your ideas by posting a comment online or sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org. And please check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Commissioner of Social Security Michael J. Astrue. You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

Government leaders, nominate your outstanding federal employees for the tenth annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies)! Considered the "Oscars of Washington," the Sammies are the most prestigious awards honoring our nation's public servants. Nominations are accepted at servicetoamericamedals.org through January 31, 2011.

By Tom Fox

 |  January 17, 2011; 12:11 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Leading in times of uncertainty: An interview with the FLRA's Carol Waller Pope | Next: Running a 'hot bench': An interview with SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue

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