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How your response to proposed discipline can help or hurt you

What’s the difference between being overburdened at work or being inefficient? Sometimes it’s just a matter of perception. You might believe you have too much work to complete in the time you’re given. Your supervisor may think you’re not working fast enough. Sometimes you can work things out. Sometimes your difference of opinion may lead to disciplinary action.

For decades, federal agencies have struggled to keep pace with their growing workloads. At the same time, federal employees may soon come under greater pressure to meet new standards or face possible discipline. In those cases—if someone issues you a proposed discipline—you need to know how to respond. Especially while agencies are under pressure to move more quickly on their disciplinary actions.

Many federal agencies face staggering backlogs

If you sometimes feel like you’re one person who’s been asked to do the work of two, you’re in good company. Back in January, while news outlets were largely focused on the government shutdown, TIME noted that the shutdown was only one problem among many. The larger problem, TIME argued, was the government’s overburdened workforce.

The article pointed to a study that found the government was ill-equipped to deal with multiple emergencies at the same time. This wasn’t because of a single administration. Rather, it was the result of decades of insufficient growth. While the nation’s population grew by 81%, the government grew by only a fraction of that amount.

As a result, many government workers had to take more responsibility, and TIME found many signs of failing morale, such as:

  • Widespread resignations left an uncommon number of senior positions unfilled
  • Employees reported that they felt punished for taking initiative
  • They felt held back by old, inefficient processes that no one had time to revisit
  • Many felt they were being targeted by political appointees

In other words, the challenges are real, and they are largely getting bigger and tougher.

The push for more and faster discipline

Faced on one side by this backdrop of growing challenges, federal employees can look in the other direction to see the threat of more and faster disciplinary actions. reported, the current administration issued a series of executive orders that encourage agencies to use discipline more aggressively. According to the guidelines, agencies should:

  • Get rid of low performers during their probationary periods, when they have fewer rights
  • Prioritize performance above tenure
  • Move more quickly through disciplinary notices and decisions
  • Retain all information about employees’ disciplinary actions
  • Consider all past disciplinary issues during the disciplinary process, not just related issues
  • Get rid of “progressive discipline” in favor of stricter initial responses

The goal is to weed out more bad employees. But what if the employee isn’t really bad? What if you’re treated unfairly due to a misguided impression? While agencies and supervisors face greater pressure to act quickly and harshly, it becomes more important than ever to understand how you can respond.

Your right to respond

As a federal employee, you have the right to respond to proposed disciplinary actions. And as the new rules take effect, it becomes more important than ever to act quickly and get things right.

Provided you’ve completed your probationary period, you have the right to reply before the proposed discipline takes effect. It’s critical that you reply carefully. This isn’t the time for an impassioned letter. Your response could set the stage for any later action before the EEOC or MSPB. If your case leads to either of these places, your first response can either bolster your argument or shoot it in the foot.

If you’re being punished unreasonably, you don’t want to make an argument that simply puts your word against your supervisor’s. You want to make sure your response makes good use of the facts and the law. Especially with the new disciplinary framework, we may see disciplinary actions rooted in mistaken perceptions. Good responses to these actions need to show how the picture was flawed.

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