An Open Letter To New Government Workers

Dear new Govie:

Congratulations. I applaud your choice to work in an environment that might make the world a better place. Here are some things you should know as you begin a career in public service:

1.      If you plan to work directly with the public, learn the fundamentals of good customer service. Please understand the public is your main customer. The key thing you will learn is that customers want to feel like someone can hear, understand, and deliver what they need. You may not get customer service training on the job. If they don’t give it, make it your responsibility to go get it.

2.      If you do not work directly with the public, remember that you still work for the public. In other words remember you are a civil “servant” and not a civil “master”. Regardless of your role or title, a little humility will keep you connected to what you are doing and why.

3.      Bring your best self to the job. Of course, nobody’s perfect but everyone has at least one good quality. Don’t be afraid to display that good quality and any other best aspects of yourself. By doing this you will not only dismantle but also destroy any remnants of old outdated stereotypes of government bureaucrats. When you bring your best self to the job you will also by default bring your best work, your best ideas, and your best work ethic.

4.      In the beginning, forget the career ladder and just learn. You can try to monkey branch your way to the top but after you get “there” will you be able to garner respect as if you are someone who has a proven track record. You might, but only if you humble yourself enough to learn your craft.

5.      Learn by listening more than you talk. Did you hear that? Try an 80/20 rule. Listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent of the time.

6.      Be honest. If you are asked to give feedback be truthful with your employer about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Honesty also requires that you do your job with a degree of integrity. Take your honesty across the board to your clients, your stakeholders, your staff, your co-workers, as well as yourself.

7.      Try to align your interests and your work. It’s hard to fake passion. It’s okay to use your head but it’s also okay to be led by your heart. Was it genuine interest that called you into public service? Don’t let go of that.

8.      Know when to stay and when to leave. Don’t let the security of public service become a stumbling block for your progress. If after doing everything you can to be a great civil servant, after bringing your “A” game, and after keeping your head and your heart in the game, you can’t make it all work – don’t stay in a toxic workplace. You still owe it to yourself to find happiness. 

Good luck, new Govie.


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Natalie J

Understand that things happen SLOWLY and that setbacks are common, especially big things. Don’t take it personally, it’s not you. Identify smaller milestones on projects to help keep you motivated and set performance goals that directly tie to your actions rather than the broader outcomes that might be outside your control.

Jean Mayne

I had to laugh a little at the “security of public service” line. Funding is always uncertain from year to year, contracts for individual positions are always being re-negotiated, many of the public will perceive you as a leech on their hard earned tax money, your bosses could change with each election, and even the idea of the appropriateness of your position could change with the swings of political landscape (i.e. the public may decide they don’t want to pay for someone to do your job or run your program…).

Being able to articulate the usefulness of your job to the public–both to their health and bottom line,–having a thick skin to political rhetoric, and building resilience and flexibility to your program will help you to weather these difficulties.

Yolanda Smith

Jean all those things are certainly true. However, I was thinking about the folks who take civil service exams and are able to maintain a non-provisional title. In those cases, sometimes the security will stifle the drive.

P. Holt

Wonderful words of advice and so beautifully written! I’m no “newbie” , but if I were, those words would give me something to think about. Great job!!


9. You can’t please everyone. There will always be babies and whiners who will blame you personally when they don’t get their way. Let it go.


I would include in my letter information about the realities of how for some Federal employment can be challenging and for some seem overwhelming. Even the best and the brightest have limitations. This is particularly important since we have been operating under the “do more with less” doctrine. The fact is that the current sequestration operating policy will impact new hires differently than it does seasoned employees, because new hires will enter the workforce at the current operating standard. However, numbers and reports are not always the true face of the grim reality of what doing more with less actually means. I realize that new hires likely won’t be thrown right into the fire, they will be trained up, but, if they do get overwhelmed, they should know that it is OK to inform their manager, supervisor, team lead, etc. and not just run for the hills.


Look to your entity’s vision and mission statements to guide the work. In my role, I work behind the scenes to serve a specific population. Recommendations for improvements are framed as being in the interest of that population and doing away with processes are framed as being detrimental to that population. Every position in my organization can operate within these frameworks to assess whether the work being done is in the best interest of the population to be served. I find this helpful, especially when proposing changes. It helps us remember why we do what we do .

Rita Vaz

I would add to make it a priority to choose a mentor asap to help one adapt to the federal workplace culture. Culture shock does happen in the federal workplace. When more seasoned employees hog work knowledge and or even misdirect the new employee, the mentor will be able to advise on how to handle the situation. Do not naively believe EEO complaints are there for fairness, they are pseudo protections and will end up labeling you as a trouble maker. As advised without making a fuss leave asap, maybe to another agency or to the private sector.


Rita Vaz,

Great advice! I have a few questions In regards to your comment. It is pertaining to my current situation. If you feel up to advising/offer suggestions, please email me and we can talk that way. If you do not want to, I totally understand. Thank you in advance! ?

Muluberhan Abate

The sky is not the limit the mind is. “If you say you can you will, If you say you can’t you won’t. Either way you are right”. Henry Ford.

Bill McFadden

This is some good advice, not only for newcomers but also for individuals who are at varying points in their careers.