Do You Think You Can’t Get Fired?

DO YOU THINK YOU CAN’T GET FIRED? Don’t tell me that it’s never crossed your mind. When you become a tenured government employee, after around five years of service in most agencies, it’s natural to heave a great sigh of relief that you won’t be cashing unemployment checks any time soon.

Urban legend says it’s impossible to fire a federal employee for anything short of committing murder, in the words of Kellie Lunney, writing in Government Executive. That’s not exactly true.

During a one-year probationary period, a newly ordained government employee can be terminated without cause.

After that, a federal manager can discharge an employee for poor performance or misconduct, but it requires considerable administrative fortitude to do so.

It’s easier to fire an employee who has “misbehaved.” One hapless chap was caught stealing toner cartridges from the supply closet, then selling them out of his trunk while parked in a government garage. He was expressed down the exit ramp to hell, otherwise known as termination and criminal prosecution.

Most employment disputes aren’t that black and white.

There’s a good reason why it’s so difficult to delete a worker from the federal payroll. Policy experts at the non-profit Partnership for Public Service say that career federal employees are protected by complex administrative policies that discourage cronyism. Jobs are doled out like favors and some appointments are “for life.”

If you are a career employee who performs well and you don’t sell stolen toner out of your trunk, you may be feeling immune from a pink slip. Don’t get too smug. Any of us could be exiled to a Rubber Room.

“Rubber Room” describes a chamber for an employee who stays on the payroll, but whose duties have been broadly curtailed. His or her role has been marginalized. It’s a little like solitary confinement. The rubber room occupant is disengaged from most or all of the dynamics of the office. The solitude and inactivity can be hard on his mental health. Think of the phrase “bouncing off the walls” and you’ll get the idea.

Although the phrase conjures up the image of a jail cell, a rubber room can be physical, digital, virtual or all three. No rubber telework, however. At least, not at this time.

Each set of circumstances that lead to a particular rubber room is complex and unique. Sometimes employees are rubber-roomed while an administrative examination is performed. Interconnected factors may make the decision hard to unravel. Some occupants can tell you exactly what put them there. Others cannot. Some will attribute their individual sequestration to ambiguous “office politics.” Some rubber room residencies are temporary. Others may last until an employee resigns, retires or finds a new job.

You’ll find rubber rooms elsewhere in public and private sector organizations—anywhere with a large enough population and multiple layers of administration. In the New York City school system, for example, teachers who have been accused of misconduct are sent to rubber rooms to await the disposition of their cases. One teacher stayed in a rubber room for 13 years.

In a documentary film titled “Rubber Room,” we meet teachers who describe themselves as depressed, bored, lethargic and despondent.

These are among the emotions reported by federal government employees who have had a rubber room experience.

We all know someone for whom negative emotions are the daily norm. Their response to work in general, to their jobs in particular, to unemployment and under-employment—not to mention the enormous task of looking for work—creates a feeling of helplessness. These workers exist in a private rubber room of their own.

In our personal lives as well as our professional ones, we all inhabit the rubber rooms that we create for ourselves.

Even those of us who are naturally upbeat and enjoy good mental health are vulnerable to the toxicity of a rubber room. We still need to acknowledge and resist the downward spiral of the rubber room scene.

The feelings of isolation and ostracism that come with life in a rubber room are hard to escape. The negative atmosphere makes looking for work or mending your relationship with your employer even more difficult. You’ll need to fight to get out of your rubber room and back into the game with your career and your life.

I talked with three friends about working in a rubber room. They have all left government service, and in each case the rubber room played a part.

Catherine | 65 | married

Catherine walked from the rubber room to retirement; she and her spouse are both 65 and they enjoy the lifestyle of dual-income federal retirees. That’s a happy ending; not everyone is prepared to retire and simply leave their worries on the rubber room doorstep.

Joe | 45 | unmarried

My friend Joe is in his forties. Being rubber-roomed caused Joe to feel increasingly negative about his job. He was growing bitter, resentful and pessimistic. It was hard for him not to obsess over the unfair treatment he says he received from his government boss.

Before his mood soured completely, Joe found good job with a technology company. The timing was on his side. If it had taken Joe longer to find and interview for the job, his anger and resentment might have made a potential hiring manager uncomfortable—even without knowing exactly why.

Joe had a good interview and was offered a position. He says that in his new job, the pace is faster and the volume of work is greater than what he got comfortable with in his federal agency. The health insurance doesn’t cover as many medical expenses as federal BlueCross/ BlueShield, but it’s still better than most. The company has downsized twice in the last five years; each time, three or four people were RIF’d. The company now has fifty employees.

Leaving the rubber room by leaving government service was a good move for Joe. The last thing he needed was more time and energy diverted, siphoning off his spirit and goading him to act on his grudge.

He may have chosen the perfect phase of life for a career change, too. Joe says that being 40 years old with 10 years of government service was just about the right mix to move into a job with middle-management responsibilities. And he kept his information technology know-how up-to-date and relevant.

Marianne | 55 | Single parent, two kids

Marianne and I talked about the rubber room and the decisions she made as a result of being in one. It took a couple of coffee conversations for me to understand the reasons behind her decisions. We’re old friends and feel safe enough with each other to be frank.

I think that she mismanaged her exit from the rubber room and did almost everything wrong. (Despite our friendship, I didn’t express my opinion quite so starkly.)

Marianne is a single mom with two teenage daughters. She gets paid a good government salary but it doesn’t amount to much after the expense of raising two adolescents in a one-income household. I think that pressure over her finances and the anxiety of a single parent led her to a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

She and a lot of her colleagues were offered a severance package and an “early out,” allowing her to retire at 55. Not everybody was eligible for that package, but Marianne was. She was fed-up with her daily, enervating rubber room existence, and found it hard to push her anxieties away from the inner dialogue that we all experience in the absence of outside stimulation.

Marianne was miserable at work. It seemed like she just never “clicked” with her new boss like she had with her old one. She really liked her former supervisor, Sandy, who valued Marianne’s contributions and was vocal about it. Sandy was a manager who earned the kind of loyalty from her employees that made them eager to contribute to her success as well as to their own.

Marianne will manage her lump-sum buy out funds intelligently, replenishing her reserves and easing her current financial burden. She’ll land on her feet—she’s a smart and resourceful person. But Marianne is re-entering the workforce at a bad time, especially for someone who hasn’t kept her computer skills up to date. She hasn’t had to sell herself to a prospective employer in a long time.

Next week, I’ll present some specifics—strategies and tactics to help you exit a rubber room that’s got you trapped. Spoiler alert: All the strategies involve to some degree a renovated relationship with your organization and finding a new job—inside your agency, elsewhere in government or private industry, or right outside the rubber room door.

You’ll meet four personality types among those in a rubber room: the wounded bear, the counselor and the hermit.

Finally, even if you’re not in a rubber room, you’ll find it helpful to have new exit techniques that can help you feel more confident and fuel your success.

People tend to value advice in direct proportion to how much they paid for it. For better or worse, “you get what you pay for” influences our decision-making process. Of these thoughts, adopt what you like and leave the rest, and take my remarks with a grain, if not a column, of NaCl. Finally, remember the words of David Brinkley, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”

J.T. Kerwin’s weekly blog for GovLoop is a somewhat whimsical look at language, design, branding and creativity in the Federal environment. He admits to meandering, but not to malingering. You can write him at [email protected]

J.T. Kerwin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Peter Sperry

You may also want to address turkey farms. Many people are transferred, even promoted, to offices within agencies which appear very active, often have high moral but which contribute little, if at all, to the agency mission. They attend conferences, participate in meetings, write very long memos and put out a great deal of happy talk; but no one takes them seriously. They are marginalized without being demoralized.

People can be banished to a turkey farm without even realizing what is happening and be quite happy for several years. But when the time comes to move onward and upward, they have no record of accomplishments. They are trapped on the farm until retirement because whatever meaningful skills they once had have atrophied and nothing they can accomplish on the farm demonstrates value to future employers.

J.T. Kerwin

What a concept! Must confess I’ve never heard the term, “Turkey Farm,” but I think I know a Turkey or two who’ve been farmed out in my department.

Erica Bakota

I think the headline is a little misleading- whether or not you can get fired is completely different from whether or not you can get rubber roomed. While being rubber roomed sucks, it’s not the same as being fired, and it also has nothing to do with a probationary period, tenure, etc. There are some at my agency who have been rubber roomed but it in no way has been a threat to their job security.

That being said, yes, the rubber room is an unfortunate situation and one that is damaging to morale for both the agency and the individual. I’d like to pose a question to the readers out there: does anyone ever feel that their agency effectively rubber rooms employees in general, perhaps to quell opposition or outside-the-box thinking (an unintentional, untargeted rubber room that is not a punishment but rather an unfortunate byproduct)?

J.T. Kerwin

Erica and Bill, thanks for pointing out that some will find the headline irrelevant or misleading.
My intent was to say “We pretty much can’t get fired, but we can be stored in a rubber room. And it’s not pleasant.” For my future use, Erica, Bill and other readers, does that make a difference in your reaction to the headline? Thanks much, am finishing up the sequel and feedback will help.

Bill Long

While I have to agree with Erica about the title, I’m right there with Eva about the content, and can even relate to Peter’s depiction of ‘the farm’. Unfortunately, I can also relate to the ‘rubber room’ and can personally atest to the viciousness that accompany some banishments. Chalk it up to experience and get the heck outta any toxic circumstance or situation asap! You’ll be better for it, as the Eagles sang, “…in the long run.”

Ms. Reed

I am currently in the rubber room. My Chief assaulted me at work. A week after I reported it to Law Enforcement, they took away my duties and I’ve been in the rubber room ever since. Does anybody know how to get out of the rubber room (without destroying my career)?