How to (not) welcome employees back to work

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This column originally ran Jan. 28, 2019, and was updated Feb. 12, 2019, to include audio content.

“I thank President Trump for his leadership, which resulted in a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the government. Our dedicated employees are ready to get to work …” Oy vey, how’s that for non-useful guidance on trying to return to normal?

Yet that, plus a couple of sentences on the virtues of border security, is what the acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said about reopening Friday evening. If you went to the Office of Personnel Management’s pay and leave furlough guidance page, you’d find a list of links to agency-specific information. Interior yielded pleasant blather.

By contrast, check out the NASA return information page. I guess this agency knows as much as anyone about sending people out into the ether and making sure they get back safely. NASA spent Friday afternoon and Saturday creating detailed back pay information, plus a thoughtful, fact-filled “welcome back” letter from NASA’s chief human capital officer Bob Gibbs.

The Commerce and Justice departments did better than Interior, but not quite as good as NASA. The Department of Homeland Security isn’t even listed on the OPM site. Going to DHS directly I couldn’t find any specific re-opening information, while FEMA’s updated its furlough site, if only with a link back to the Chief Human Capital Officers Council lapse-in-funding page. But that page was last updated Jan. 23, two days before the reopening vote.

For gosh sakes, you had all weekend to bang out a few FAQ sheets — throw up a few links. I’m beginning to understand why NASA always ranks highest in the annual employee opinion surveys.

Even OPM, which is sometimes dinged for being a step behind, had a checklist for agencies up and ready to go immediately after the political agreement for the three-week continuing resolution.

We know that the National Finance Center intends to get its customers’ employees paid by Thursday of this week. Let’s presume Interior’s shared services payroll center will do the same. It means the unpaid federal employees will be financially whole by the weekend — well, technically whole. Many will have debts and other financial chaos to straighten out.

But the differences in information among agencies doesn’t portend well for how uniformly they’ll take care of the human side of re-opening.

Besides helping things get back to normal operationally, managers must keep in mind that it’s not a regular, old Monday. People will be variously feeling dissed, grumpy or cynical. So if you’re in charge of a bureau, office, agency or department, listen to them.

In a recent interview, Bob Tobias, former federal union president and now a professor at American University, said something worth repeating. The first day back, managers should let people vent, talk out the losses and frustrations. This idea was echoed by Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He urges the leadership to be visible, to be out on the office floor or front lines of where people are working. Welcome them back, tell them you’re delighted to see them, and tell them you’re sorry they had to put up with this.

And mean it.

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