THE BABY STEP TANGO

The final results of the 2017 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) have just been released and guess what? For the Broadcasting Board of Governors, there is no significant difference between this year’s and last year’s results. In fact, for the BBG, there is no significant difference between this year’s results and the results for every one of the past surveys since the very first one in 2002. The federal employees at the BBG are caught in a full-blown crisis: a crisis of confidence, a crisis of poor leadership, a crisis of morale.

Once again, our Agency has the dubious honor of being the cellar-dweller in the Medium-Sized Federal Agency category. We’re the “bottom of the barrel” kids. We literally can go no lower!

A look back shows that, over many years, Agency management has preached “incremental improvements” or taking “baby steps” in order to turn things around. Well, those incremental baby-step improvements have failed to make any significant improvements in the morale crisis at this Agency – a morale crisis that has been in existence since at least 2002. We are told every year that we didn’t get to this point overnight and we won’t get out of the hole we are in overnight. Well at what point do we start digging out instead of digging deeper?

The latest FEVS shows that, throughout government overall, positive responses were up. Any increases in positive responses for the BBG are probably just statistical “noise” — insignificant. The real news in this year’s results is that the BBG remains dead last in every index in its category. In the Employee Engagement Index–dead last. In the New IQ Index – dead last. Global Satisfaction Index – dead last. Finally, in the Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework – same story – dead last. For those keeping count, that is four for four; a total and complete failure.

If the past few years of morale improvement efforts have shown anything, it is that this Agency does not know how to improve employee morale; in fact, morale has gotten worse. Obviously, whatever tiny steps the Agency has utilized to improve morale have not been enough to significantly and adequately address the causes of the morale problem. This year’s FEVS is proof that better communication and more ice cream socials and poetry contests aren’t what improves morale. In fact, the case can be made that these social events worsen morale because they give the impression that management is focused on these activities rather than on actions that would truly improve morale, such as removing inefficient, demeaning, incompetent and ineffective managers. (Unfortunately for the Agency and its employees, that describes many managers.)

What is needed is a strong, serious effort that either results in significant improvements in morale or has real consequences for those managers who, in essence, are the driving force in the abysmal morale situation in the areas they oversee.

The Agency already has the tools needed to identify, in some cases even down to the language service level, those managers who oversee units that have higher morale levels as well as those managers who need to be removed from their positions and transferred to other, non-managerial, duties.

Given the robust 75% response rate to the survey, we can rightly say that Agency employees are not interested in any more upper management plans for “incremental baby step changes.” No more sugarcoating. No more dancing around the problems. No more concocting unrealistic, peripheral solutions. The Agency needs to make a real commitment and institute a “roll up the sleeves” attitude to seriously tackle and reverse the crisis situation that we are in. Managers overseeing units with low morale need to feel the heat and either raise the morale or lose their positions.

Low morale is a threat to the mission of any organization; conversely, high morale is a force multiplier. The Agency needs to understand that improving morale is not something that it should only focus on after all other tasks are accomplished; improving morale should be on the top of every manager’s list. Make no mistake: low morale is an existential threat to this Agency and its about time leaders and managers acknowledge that and do something about it.


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Taking a Knee Could Get You Booted

The present dust up over NFL players who kneel during the traditional presentation of the flag and singing of the National Anthem at football games has all sorts of facets.

One facet that has not been fully explored is the issue of employees’ right to freely express themselves. Most of the news stories about this topic  cast this as a debate over the players’ right to exercise their First Amendment rights on the field which is their work space. They invoke the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as the guarantor. To clarify: the First Amendment prevents the government of the United States from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech”. But the current debate on the issue concerns the matter of the NFL (a private firm) allowing players to protest by kneeling during the presentation of the U.S. flag and playing of the National Anthem.

First, to make it clear: there are limits to any citizen’s free speech rights which are pretty much universally accepted in this country. Even though the right to protest or the right to express one’s views is protected by the First Amendment libel and slander are not protected. Neither is speech that is discriminatory or sexually harassing or likely to incite illegal activity.

Many employees, especially those who once lived under authoritarian rule, believe that they “live in a free country” and that the Constitution protects their freedom of speech from restrictions imposed on it by their employer. As the Gershwin song goes: It ain’t necessarily so. The First Amendment only protects citizens’ free speech against government restrictions. Constitutional rights do not necessarily apply at the work site and some court cases have established that the employer’s control over an employee’s speech may even extend beyond the work site and during non-work hours.

As employees of the federal government, the First Amendment does apply to members of the AFGE Local 1812 bargaining unit. However, even if you work for the federal government the courts have determined that it is a balancing act between the employee’s free speech rights and the impact of the employee’s speech on the Agency’s operations. We have had cases, for example, in which the agency has sought to discipline employees who have spoken to the press about problems they have identified at the Agency.

In the case of the NFL players, their employer is not the government but a private entity. The NFL probably could establish a policy that prohibits players from kneeling (or doing anything else that the NFL decided was detrimental to its operations or image) during the presentation of the National Anthem. AFGE Local 1812 is not suggesting that the NFL should do this, just that it probably could.

Although the First Amendment does not fully protect an employee’s right to free speech of any kind at work, there are some protections for private sector employees such as the whistleblower law. In addition, the National Labor Relations Act protects speech regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. But even then, there is a balancing act with the employer’s right to protect the business.

Kneeling during the National Anthem has been identified by the players as a protest about the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. It is hard to see how this issue could be considered as being about wages, hours, or working conditions.

So, why does the law give one’s employer the right to restrict so much of one’s speech? It would be beneficial to see a more thoughtful discussion about the extent to which an employer has the right to restrict an employee’s speech. The present situation with the National Football League players’ protest could be the impetus to spark that healthy debate.