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The Honor of Public Service and the Need for Civility

The honor of public service comes from performing in line with each organization’s mission, values, and standards.

December 9, 2013

As federal workers struggle with the aftereffects of the shutdown, challenges to their organizations’ budgets – let alone existence, pay freezes, hiring freezes, and potential staff cutbacks – it’s a good time to recall what President John F. Kennedy said about government employment more than 50 years ago.

Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: "I served the United States government in that hour of our nation's need.

Kennedy recognized that those employed by the federal government occupy a special role. It’s not a mistake that they are referred to as public servants. They maintain our national forests and parks; administer Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits; provide a strong national defense both in and outside of the United States; enforce our laws; provide security at our borders; and assure that our airways, highways and waterways are safe. They perform thousands of other functions which contribute to our way of life, security, and overall community as a united people. They work for us.

Often, the value they add to our society is overlooked even as they labor under challenging occupational and personal conditions. During October’s shutdown, many in the federal government suffered wage losses and resulting hardships. For example, Transportation Security Administration security workers, who inspect our luggage and carry-ons, had their pay suspended during the government’s closure. Yet, by law, they were required to work all the while uncertain as to when or even if they would be compensated. One such worker, Gerardo Hernandez, lost his life as a result of an individual act of violence at the Los Angeles International airport just days after normal operations resumed.

Like the rest of us, federal employees worry about their careers, families, opportunities, and futures. In periods of such frustration, when pay, jobs, and the public’s very perception of the importance of federal service is at risk, it is hard to stay focused, engaged, and committed to key responsibilities. It would be challenging for any of us under these type circumstances.

Nearly 40 years ago, I got my first law job as a trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Atlanta. When I arrived, we did not have a Regional Attorney responsible for running our office and making key staffing, resource, and litigation decisions. A temporary appointee filled the role. I can still recall the water cooler talk, the office chats, the distractions caused when we did not know who would lead us, or when a choice would be made and announced. The uncertainty clearly affected us. We did our work but the truth is, it cut into our productivity.

Right now, the climate for federal employees is much worse. It extends beyond specific agencies and offices across the entire government. It’s vital that those in the government’s employ and the public who benefits from it have leaders who act in ways that bring colleagues together so they work collaboratively and productively.

The uncertainty in the federal sector can’t be explained away with glib promises that all will be well. What I suggest are some specific actions which go to the heart of why many choose public service – they want to accomplish something for the public and work with a group committed to that result. To that end, leaders should remind their teams that:

They do work that fulfills a public mission: This should always be the key motivator for federal employees. When there are organizational stresses, it’s even more critical that people realize they have meaningful jobs that contribute in a specific way to an overarching purpose. One action a leader can take is to regularly discuss with employees how their team contributes to an important public function. Knowing everyday that what they do is important eases some of the stress of daily personal uncertainty;

Their organization has overarching values: Those values set standards not only for what’s done but also, as representatives of the United States government, for how their work is to be performed.

Each team member must manage his/her own behavior daily: This benefits not only the team member, but also his/her co-workers and their mission. Uncivil behavior can lead to unnecessary and harmful conflict. Team members need standards to insure that their behavior does not add to a difficult situation. To that end they need to:

  • avoid the gross words, jokes, and stray comments that insult particular groups and those with different views
  • remember that their communication style, i.e., tone of voice and body language, can send a message that disrupts working relationships
  • listen to concerns and issues that others raise
  • always tell the truth – never change or fabricate information
  • consistently apply these principles to every team member at every level across organization
  • apologize if they make mistakes regarding these principles, and commit to not repeating them

Now is as much a time of need as the era Kennedy referred to in 1961. The honor of public service comes from performing in line with each organization’s mission, values, and standards. Doing great work in challenging times with a high level of professionalism, inclusion, and collaboration is what civility is about and why it should always be a critical element of federal public service. 

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.