How to Keep Your Cool During the Presidential Transition

If there’s one thing that most Americans can agree on this year, it’s that the upcoming presidential election has been a roller coaster of emotions. It’s been on almost every newspaper headline for the past few months, and even international publications aren’t immune to our craziness. This election is pretty impossible to avoid.

However, in the midst of chaos it’s important to remember that while political parties may change, the government’s operations must soldier on. At many agencies, the presidential transition has an echoing effect on employees at almost every level. Although rank-and-file employees won’t really feel a drastic change, there are still uncertainties about what this upcoming change in administration will mean for them and their job. With this in mind, it’s easy to get lost in the muck of things and lose sight of ongoing priorities that still need tending to.

Because of this, experienced agency employees of past transitions came together during a recent ACT-IAC human resources forum: Patricia Bradshaw, Senior Human Resources Consultant at SAIC, Ventris Gibson, Director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Resources, and Debra Tomcheck, Vice President at ICF — to provide insight and advice on how to best handle the transition with rank-and-file employees at your agency.

Remember your mission. Probably the most important thing to remember during a transition is that as a civil servant, providing citizens with the necessary services they require is essential, no matter what else is happening.

“Remember that regardless of who walks in as the incoming administration, we have to make sure that the mission of the agency or department continues to be the primary accomplishment,” Gibson said, “and that the goals are identified appropriately, so we have to make sure that the workforce is inspired and motivated to continue to provide service. That is critical.”

Advise those leaving. As this is a chaotic, confusing time for most government workers, it can be easy to overlook those appointees who may be leaving your agency.

“The first phase was to figure out how to be of help to the appointees that were going to be leaving our department,” said Tomcheck, who worked on the Clinton-Bush transition. “We did some very practical things like set up briefings. We had the unemployment office come in and have a conversation with people, which they were actually very pleased to receive,” she recalled about her time as an HR specialist at the Office of Personnel Management.

Remember that you’re apolitical. Working in the public sector can be tricky in terms of political thoughts and opinions. Especially during a transition, it can be tempting to stick with your own political party and disregard any new or possible policy changes that might be implemented. However, as an agency employee, you have to remember to do your job and to do it apolitically.

“Always assure them that they are civil servants, [and] they are here to serve the administration,” Bradshaw advised. “They are apolitical, and their job is to show that they are value added to the team.”

Bolster the agency morale and keep it in its place. With so much change happening and so many things up in the air at your agency, it can be difficult to keep a mission-centric mindset in place. While employees may be distracted and preoccupied with the election and inevitable fallout afterward, it’s crucial to maintain a sense of clarity in terms of your team’s expectations.

“Just keeping the morale and the enthusiasm of your team in place is so important,” Tomcheck stressed. “And this goes across your agency, not just to HR, but any program that’s important to the agency.” It’s just keeping the workforce’s morale up and reminding them that all the work that you’ve put into whatever project or policy you were working on, there’s still a possibility to get that out, even with a change in administration.

Always have a backup plan. While certain political appointees know far in advance that they will be phased out with the new administration, not everyone can be certain what their future at the agency will look like, or if they’ll even have a future. Because of this, Gibson suggested always having a plan B — or even plans C, D and E. Make sure that you have options for alternate locations that you present to your director in case you’re asked to leave.

“I always tell executives, as much as you may think you’re the top notch performer, always have a plan,” Gibson said. This is your chance to do what you’ve always wanted to do in life because if these new political appointees come in, and they don’t want you to stay on board, they’ll give you what you want.

“It’s legal, and you get to go where you want,” she noted. “You know, if you’ve always wanted to work in Hawaii, now’s your chance.”

A Presidential transition is never easy to go through for government workers, no matter what level you’re at. But for more senior-level employees, making sure that your subordinates are prepared, that they remember why they’re there, and that they keep their political opinions separate from work can make all the difference in an effective transition.

Stay tuned to GovLoop for more posts on the presidential transition and how career employees and political appointees can prepare for the inevitable! If you have any tips for our community, share them in the comments section.

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