6 tips for surviving a prolonged presidential transition

By June, new appointees should be arriving in large numbers, but the Trump administration isn't following the traditional path. Federal HR expert Jeff Neal as...

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Presidential transitions can be a time of great disruption for the federal workforce. We all know the drill — the prior appointees say their goodbyes and go away, then there is a rush of new people, new policies, and jockeying for position. Those of us who have been through it a few times usually have some tips for the folks who are newer and have not experienced it. In most transitions, by June the new appointees are arriving in large numbers.

I think it is obvious to just about everyone that this transition is not following the traditional path. Perhaps it is because the president did not really expect to win, or perhaps it is because he simply does not want his administration to follow that traditional path. Whatever the reason, we are not seeing the typical patterns and that has caused some concerns in the workforce. Add to that the president’s budget proposals and some atypical department and agency heads, and the result is a lot of stressed federal employees.

How do you deal with that stress? What can a federal employee do to survive and thrive in this slo-mo transition? I know that federal workers run critical programs that our nation depends upon, and the vast majority of feds care deeply about what they do. They really are public servants. I’d like to offer a few ideas that may help relieve transition stress.

  1. Focus on what is happening, not on what the rumor mill says. I have always thought that the rumor mill in federal offices is the only thing that can move faster than the speed of light. It seems that the worse the rumor is, the faster it travels. The problem is that most of those rumors are not true, and worrying about them does not do a bit of good. The rumor mill will tell you who is going to be appointed, how the new folks are going to change the agency, the new and better buyouts and early outs (often with the added dimension of a mythical early out formula that does away with the age reduction penalty). Rumors tend to be more common when there is a lack of real information. There is such a hunger for information that people grasp at any straw, even when their gut is telling them it is probably not true. Thomas Jefferson was right when he asked how much pain is caused by worrying about evils that never happened. As a compulsive worrier, I know this piece of advice is easy to give and hard to follow, but I encourage feds to try to follow it.
  2. Do not play the game of jockeying for position/power/influence. This one is deadly, and it happens in every transition. When the former appointees are on their way out and new ones are on their way in, some people see it as the perfect opportunity to feather their own nest. It takes many different forms, but all of them are bad for the organization, bad for the workforce, and bad for the incoming administration. The folks who do it typically try to undermine people in the organization, identify them as supporters of the previous administration, and position themselves as the ones who can help the new folks get their agenda accomplished. If you are one of those folks, here is a piece of advice. New appointees who know anything at all will see through it. When I was an appointee, I had people come to me to tell me how bad the George W. Bush administration was, and how happy they were that we were there. My response to those folks was a question. “Why should I believe you are not going to throw me under the bus the day I walk out the door, just like you are doing to the Bush appointees now?” Maybe it works for some folks, but it did not sit well with me or anyone democratic or republican appointees I have spoken with. It also makes your co-workers think you are treacherous.
  3. Trust the new people until they give you a reason not to. New political appointees can be great, terrible, or anywhere in between. Many of them come in with preconceived ideas about the federal workforce. That may be more of an issue with this administration, but I know it was true in the Obama administration as well. The Obama White House was so concerned about the danger of those perceptions that they did training for new appointees on working with the career workforce. The message they sent was that the appointees would get nothing done if they did not learn to trust and rely on the career feds. If you send the message that you do not trust the new folks, they will pick up on it very quickly and it will reinforce any existing doubts they may have about federal employees. I am not suggesting federal workers be doormats, but I do believe you need to give the new folks a chance.
  4. Focus on your mission. One of the great things about federal employees is their dedication to the mission of their agencies. Every year the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows that huge numbers of federal workers care very much about the mission. There is a good reason for that. Where else can you ensure that seniors get the Social Security or Medicare benefits they earned? Where can you provide direct support to our nation’s armed forces? Where can you ensure food safety? There are so many critical services that federal workers provide every day. Whether you love the new administration, hate them, or do not have an opinion, you can focus on getting your mission accomplished every day. There is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from that, and it can keep you from paying attention to the rumor mill.
  5. Focus on your life. Work is an important part of our lives. For some people, it can be so central to who they are that they lose focus on the family, friends and activities that happen outside work. When there is turmoil at work because of all the changes that come with a presidential transition, it is a good time to re-focus on everything outside of work. It can be a welcome relief.
  6. Be willing to leave. This one may be a bit controversial, but it is true. Career federal employees are there to carry out the legitimate policies of any administration. Sometimes that means you are supporting policies you believe in – sometimes not so much. For some folks those policy changes are disruptive, but they do not test the limits of your conscience. Other times they are so profound that you cannot stand going to work every day. Every employee in every administration has to make that call based on what he or she believes is right. For some, that means staying in government and working to influence the policy decisions that they care most about. For others, it may mean choosing to leave government and do something else. Still, others may believe that they are seeing wrongdoing and choose to become whistleblowers. Everyone has to make decisions based on their own values and personal situation. It may be that you are a CSRS employee who is two years from retirement and cannot leave for financial reasons. Whatever your decision, it should be based on what is right for you, with the understanding that presidents get to set policy and career folks get to carry it out.

This transition is going slower than most, so it is likely that we will see it continuing well into 2018. Finding ways to adjust to the slow rolling changes is going to be critical for feds.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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