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Essentially Non-Essential – How to deal with the monikers when gov reopens

We’ll say it as many times as it takes: “You Are Essential!” Yes, you heard us. Every federal employee is essential. That’s why GovLoop launched the You Are Essential campaign. (To join in and get some sweet swag click here.)

But the “You Are Essential” mantra doesn’t change the fact that some people were required to work during the shutdown, while some were furloughed. That situation could mean some awkwardness when the government reopens. So how do you deal with the potential land mines?

Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that leaders need to publicly address the “essential” question openly, honestly and right away.

“There are people on both sides of the equation who are going to be frustrated or upset for a very valid set of reasons. At town halls or any sort of welcome back, leaders need to cut through some of that tension. The message has to cascade throughout the organization to say that some of this is just semantics. The essential vs. non-essential is a designation for simply keeping the lights on and the trains running on time, not how it relates to mission work. Some people still harbor hurt feelings from the shutdown 17 years ago. It is easy to see why. The shutdown has been a real hardship for folks. You have to address it head on and realize that those feelings may last awhile. If you leave them unaddressed they will last forever,” said Fox.

When government reopens, how do you get people plugged in?

“You have to re-recruit your employees. You have all the burden of being out work for the past three weeks that has built up. All the scheduling issues and the impact on peoples vacation plans. You have to help them once again reconnect to the mission and the impact of the organization. Sure leaders should be focused on some of the administration elements of the shutdown – the nightmare – but don’t lose track of the people aspect of this whole situation. Really think about what you can do to re-create a positive and productive work environment,” said Fox.

What are the steps you can take?

“There is no one answer or solution. But there are a lot of things you can try to demonstrate to your employees that you really want to make a difference:

  • It starts when the government reopens – the first day of business – if the Secretary and the senior leaders can be there to literally welcome them back to the job.
  • Hold a town hall meeting to emphasize the organization’s mission. It is not the political leadership within the agencies who demanded the shutdown – it is happening on Capitol Hill. Employees won’t be blaming you but they will be looking to you to for some leadership. That way you not only convey your message but you open up the dialogue so that folks can legitimately share their concerns.
  • Provide a personal touch because the shutdown has caused employees personal difficulties. Managers should be prepared to write letters to banks, lenders, creditors explaining the furlough and asking for special circumstances. They need to explain why employees, through no fault of their own, were unable to make payments. Demonstrate that it is not just professional pursuits but it is also personal matters that will really help people re-engage around the mission.

Prioritize the work

“We found through our Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings that it is really the mission that matters most to public servants. So to the greatest extent possible, not just in a town hall meeting, but in your prioritization of the work that has built up over the past few weeks, think about what is going to help people see that they are in fact once again making a contribution to the mission. The key is to not add to the work load. Don’t want to swamp your employees upon their return. That’s why helping them prioritize is key. It will help employees not just feel a sense of progress but accomplishment,” said Fox.

What shouldn’t you do?

“Don’t wallow in self pity. Be empathetic, but once the government reopens it is time to get back to work. I think back to the Sammies a few weeks ago and Tony Mendez who was the star of Argo. He talked about how once he completed the mission of getting those Americans to safety from Iran, he immediately turned to his partner and said ‘ok, let’s get back to work.’ I think that is what needs to happen here too. Focus on what you can do,” said Fox.

Beat back bureaucracy

“Help employees cut through the red tape. There will be a backlog of work that folks will need to get through, so try to make things as administratively simple and efficient as possible. They don’t feel that they are getting buried by process,” said Fox.

You can find all of GovLoop’s shutdown coverage here.

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Cathy Jensen

Two years ago the Minnesota state government shut down for 20 days. The similarities are numerous (unbending politicians, not of our making, essential/non-essential employees, no idea when it would end, no paycheck and no back pay). When we finally got back to work, our leadership did a great job of addressing the issues raised here. They personally greeted us at the door; they paid for bagels and juice in the cafeteria, and told us how glad they were to have us back. Our computers had to be brought up slowly so there were several hours of ‘down time’ where we mostly shared stories of our time away. It reminded me of the first day of school.

Our commissioner exhorted us to pause and think about our work as we tackled the backlog and make conscience decisions about what we could let go and what really added value. His view was that a shutdown is a terrible thing to waste and provided a real opportunity to rethink what and how we did things. On the day we would have gotten paid and didn’t, he sent another message of empathy, reminded us of the help available and reiterated that it had nothing to do with our worth as employees. The governor also sent a message to all state employees telling us how much he appreciated the work we do. He included a couple stories from his interactions with citizens of real examples of how we helped them, not just generic platitudes about how valuable we are.

More than two years later I can honestly say we are over it. The weekly messages of encouragement, personal philosophy and news from our executive team continued beyond the crises. We have permanently shed some of the procedures and busy work inherent to government. We were never made whole financially, but many of us have created emergency ‘shutdown’ funds because we now know it really can happen.

Hang in there,

Cathy Jensen

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency