Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Tips to help you ace a Skype meeting

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Many agencies are cutting their travel budgets to accommodate cuts in their annual budgets. Because of this trend, more meetings that would require travel will likely be replaced with Skype meetings.

To impress your colleagues and managers on Skype:

  • Be serious. Treat Skype meetings just as seriously as you treat in-person meetings, and primp just as professionally for them as you would for in-person meetings.
  • Know your fellow Skypers. When your Skype meeting is planned, collect the name, title and contact info of each participant.
  • Check your technology. A few days before your meeting, check that your Skype technology works and that you have all necessary codes for your impending Skype connection. Obtain a backup telephone number for reaching your fellow Skypers in case your Skype connection fails.
  • Be punctual. Check the time zone of your scheduled meeting, and “show up” on time. Log onto your Skype call early enough to troubleshoot any technical glitches and to participate in pre-meeting chit-chat, just as you might before an in-person meeting. Plan your schedule for the possibility that your meeting will run overtime.
  • Be aware of Skype’s constraints. Most movie cameras, including Skype cameras, flatten the appearance of their subjects. Also, it may be difficult to make eye contact with fellow Skypers because your eyes will probably be drawn to the images of your fellow Skypers appearing on your computer screen, but you will be filmed by your Skype camera that probably is positioned above your screen. So unless you make adjustments for this, your fellow Skypers will only see you looking down or sideways.
  • Practice so that you learn how to conquer these and other Skype constraints. Skype in advance with a trusted adviser, and solicit feedback about how you come across. Also, tape and review your practice Skype sessions.

Such practice should help teach you how to convey an appropriate level of animation and speak at an appropriate volume; strategically position your Skype camera and effectively illuminate your Skype area; pose yourself so that you look natural and professional; maintain enough distance from your Skype camera so that you do not appear to your fellow Skypers as a giant talking head; and make effective eye contact with your fellow Skypers by looking straight into your Skype camera whenever you speak. (But you may watch the images of your fellow Skypers on your computer screen as they speak.) Also, if you are planning to take notes or refer to notes during the meeting, practice occasionally lifting your head and looking into your camera for prolonged periods so that your fellow Skypers will see more than the top of your head during the meeting.

  • Prepare your meeting room. Clean up your Skype workspace. Except for a backup telephone, unplug noisy devices, such as clocks, TVs, radios and unnecessary electronic communication devices. Remove people and pets from the room and prominently post a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
  • Don’t blather on. Because you and the other participants will be deprived of some of the telling physical cues of face-to-face interactions, occasionally ask your fellow Skypers if they would like further clarification or more information about particular issues.
  • Check in during silences. If you must pause before answering a question, say, “Excuse me, but I must think about this for a moment.” That way, your fellow Skypers won’t think that your Skype camera has frozen.
  • Follow up. Send each new colleague or manager you “met” during the Skype meeting an email to let them know you enjoyed meeting them and to pass on your contact info and any appropriate follow-up materials or updates.

 

How to address security clearance decisions and changes

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Here is some advice on responding to security clearance decisions and on maintaining security clearances that was provided to me by Derrick Dortch, president of the Diversa Group, a career consulting firm focused on federal jobs:

• If you fail a polygraph test, your target agency will not necessarily inform you of this development — even though a failed polygraph would almost certainly doom your security investigation. If you are not informed of polygraph results within about two weeks of taking the test, ask the agency about your results and the status of your investigation.

• If you are denied a clearance because you failed your polygraph test, request to redo the test. Some agencies allow applicants to take two, sometimes even three, polygraph exams.

• Some agencies only inform applicants of clearance denials with vague explanations such as, “We have determined that you would not be a good fit with our agency.” If this happens, ask for a specific reason for your denial. Support your request by citing any factors that may mitigate your liabilities or reasons why any problematic polygraph results may have produced false negatives.

• If you’re denied a clearance, immediately file a request for reconsideration even if you are certain that it would be denied. Why? Because if your request for reconsideration is on record, your target agency’s denial won’t be the last word on your worthiness for a clearance, and your discussion of mitigating factors would counter the denial.

• If the agency refuses to disclose why you failed your security investigation and will not reconsider your application, you can request the file on your security investigation under the Freedom of Information Act. While some agencies respond positively to such requests, others, such as the CIA, usually do not.

• Once you receive a security clearance, ask an expert on operations security in your office to explain all rules that you must follow to maintain your security clearance. Then follow restrictions on your use of email; restrictions on discussing your work with others, including members of your family; restrictions on the types of communication devices, computers and documents you may take out of the office; and restrictions on your use of social media.

Transgressions of such rules have triggered the cancellations of many security clearances, even in cases where the secured employee was unaware that he had broken security rules.

You also will want to maintain a clean record so that you will pass any future investigations that you may have to undergo to upgrade your clearance level.

Looking for openings that target clearable or cleared applicants? Find them by searching under the term “security clearance” at www.USAJOBS.gov and by surfing through the careers websites of your target agencies.

Because many openings targeting clearable or cleared applicants are not advertised for security reasons, also inquire about openings with the human resources offices of agencies in the financial management, scientific research, homeland security, diplomacy, defense, auditing, law enforcement and intelligence communities. In addition, use www.ClearanceJobs.com.

A federal career coach or attorney with expertise on security clearances can advise you on selecting agencies whose security policies would accommodate your background, preparing for investigations, practicing for interviews, appealing denials, or determining how long you should wait to reapply for a security clearance.

Past transgressions don’t necessarily spell doom for clearances

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Career consultant Derrick Dortch has reassuring words for security clearance applicants who are worried about being approved:

“No one is perfect,” he said in a recent interview. “All of us have made mistakes and have blemishes in our backgrounds. So don’t assume that any mistakes you may have made in the past would necessarily doom your application for a security clearance.”

A variety of factors, including the particular clearance policies of your target agency, would likely influence the importance of your mistakes or liabilities, said Dortch, who is president of the Diversa Group, a career consulting firm focused on federal jobs.

For example, the FBI considers marijuana use within the previous three years, or use of other illegal drugs within the previous 10 years, to be automatic deal-busters. By contrast, the CIA only requires applicants to have refrained from using illegal drugs within the previous 12 months — but does evaluate illegal drug use prior to the previous 12 months.

Dortch also said that, in many cases, you may mitigate liabilities in two ways: accountability and time. This means that your liabilities might not be held against you if you have assumed accountability and responsibility for them and you have already corrected them, or are following a plan to correct them; or sufficient time has passed since your transgressions occurred without repeating them.

Some examples of how such mitigation might work:

• Suppose you’re applying for a CIA clearance, and the last time you abused drugs was two years ago. Because the CIA does not consider drug use that occurred more than one year ago to be an automatic deal-buster, you might be able to mitigate concerns about your past drug use by explaining to investigators that you only used drugs infrequently in college and, since graduating, you completely stopped using drugs.

You would thereby show that your drug use would be unlikely to recur and should not cast doubt on your reliability, trustworthiness or good judgment.

• Suppose you used to be a problem drinker. You might be able to mitigate concerns about your drinking by proving to investigators that you successfully completed a treatment program and received a favorable prognosis by a qualified medical professional or a licensed clinical social worker and have, since completing the program, lived an alcohol-free life and changed your friends and other relevant lifestyle habits accordingly.

• Suppose you were once treated for depression. You might be able to mitigate concerns about your mental health by explaining, with corroboration from your psychologist or psychiatrist, that your depression was an understandable response to the death of a loved one, a divorce or other traumatic event, and by proving that your treatment led to your successful recovery without relapses.

• Suppose you have or have had financial problems, such as a bankruptcy, outstanding debts or outstanding loan payments. You might be able to mitigate concerns about your financial status by showing evidence of some combination of the following: The underlying conditions that caused your financial problems were largely beyond your control because of loss of employment or an unexpected medical emergency, for example; you have conquered the conditions that caused your financial problems; you have taken responsibility for your financial problems by getting counseling from a certified credit counselor; you have or are currently following a payment plan that will eliminate your debts and return you to good standing; or you have reason to dispute the legitimacy of the past-due debt at issue, and you provide evidence that you have taken actions to resolve the issue.

Dortch warns, however, that even small debts, including student loans and mortgage loans, may doom security investigations for applicants who have not taken steps to deal with them.

How to prepare for clearance investigations

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My Nov. 28 column reviewed the basics of security clearances. Here are tips on how to pass investigations required for obtaining security clearances; they were suggested to me during a recent interview with Derrick Dortch, president of the Diversa Group, a career consulting firm focused on federal jobs.

* Prepare for the investigations. Obtain Standard Form 86, which you would be required to complete during your investigation. The form is available under “Find forms” on the Office of Personnel Management website, www.opm.gov. Also, do a Google search typing in the name of your target agency with the term “security clearance” to learn about the agency’s particular clearance policies.

* Obtain your credit reports from all companies that produce them, and immediately correct any mistakes and genuine credit problems cited by them. Also, obtain all documents related to any court history you may have or any brushes with the police you may have had. (But don’t worry about parking tickets.)

* If you have been treated by psychologists or psychiatrists, warn them that they will probably be interviewed by your investigators, and ask them what they would say about you.

* Scrub your online profiles of unflattering, inflammatory or potentially controversial behavior by you.

* Once your security investigation begins, tell the truth throughout the process; lying about your potential liabilities may hurt you more than your actual liabilities.

* Document every phase of your security investigation. For example, write down the names, titles, contact information and any other relevant information about all investigators or polygraph examiners who interact with you, and what you discussed with them. Also, take notes during your interviews with investigators.

Immediately after your interviews or polygraphs are completed, while these interactions are still fresh in your mind, note any biases or prejudices that may have been shown by your interviewers or polygraphists, and any questions or statements that were inappropriate or made you feel uncomfortable. You may need this information if you are ultimately denied a security clearance and opt to appeal it.

* Some agencies, including those in the intelligence, national and homeland security communities, include polygraph tests in their security clearance processes. Polygraph tests monitor changes in the heart rate and other physiological reactions of the test-taker while he is being questioned by an examiner.

But polygraphs remain controversial, partly because a person’s nervousness in answering questions may cause a polygraph to flag truthful answers as deceptive — i.e. answers that are false negatives. That is largely why polygraph results are not admissible in court.

* If you are required to take a polygraph, discuss any issues about your background that make you feel uncomfortable before the polygraph examiner puts you on the polygraph. In response, the examiner may allow you to elaborate or explain your answers during the test so that you may clarify any potentially thorny issues and reduce the chances of your answers registering as false.

Also keep in mind that some — but not all — agencies may allow applicants who provide potentially problematic answers to retake polygraphs two or even three times.

Nevertheless, if you fail a polygraph, your target agency may rescind your Conditional Offer of Employment (COE). If this occurs even if you have been truthful, immediately appeal and request to take another polygraph.

* The emphases of polygraphs vary among agencies. For example, some agency’s polygraphs emphasize lifestyle questions, involving potential drug and alcohol abuse, criminal records and problems with personal finances. By contrast, the polygraphs of intelligence agencies may emphasize factors signaling a potential willingness to spy on the U.S., such as an extensive travel history, experience living overseas and the character of the applicant’s overseas relatives and friends — although international experience and foreign language skills are generally considered pluses.

 

Clearance process is exhaustive, but can lead to higher salary, more opportunity

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All applicants who accept offers for federal jobs must undergo a basic background investigation that — with some variation according to the opening — is designed to ensure that that they have no glaring deal-breakers in their backgrounds, such as legal problems.

But more and more jobs with federal agencies and government contractors are requiring security clearances that involve more exhaustive investigations than basic background investigations. A security clearance is an authorization to a fed or contractor to access classified materials needed to do a particular job.

You cannot apply for a security clearance yourself. To obtain a security clearance you must work for an agency or contractor that requests a security clearance for you because your job requires access to classified information.

The main types of clearances are:

Confidential: Provides access to information or material that may cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

Secret: Provides access to information or material that may cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

Top secret: Provides access to information or material that may cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

Sensitive compartmented information: Provides access to intelligence information and material that may require controls for restricted handling within compartmented channels.

Some jobs are open only to applicants who already possess security clearances. But other openings are open to applicants who don’t have security clearances but would be expected to qualify for them. In government lingo, such applicants are called “clearable.” Offers to clearable selectees are usually made on a contingency basis, i.e. the job offer is not solid until the selectee passes his security investigation, and will be rescinded if he fails the investigation.

If you receive a contingency offer, remember that your new job is not a done deal until you pass your security clearance. Even if you consider your record squeaky clean, your job offer may be rescinded if snags are unexpectedly uncovered or if other problems unrelated to your background, such as unanticipated budget woes in your target agency, kill your deal.

The higher a job is up the security clearance ladder, the more exhaustive its associated background investigation will be. But all investigations for security clearances require applicants to complete Standard Form 86, which is accessible on the Office of Personnel Management website, www.opm.gov. Investigations also include interviews with the applicant, the applicant’s current and former friends, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, psychologists and psychiatrists; medical examinations to ensure the applicant’s medical and mental fitness; checks of the applicant’s travel history, foreign contacts, current and previous residences, academic records, military record, credit history, court and police records, employment history; and a polygraph test.

Depending on your target job and employer, you might need a security clearance to advance. Also, feds and contractors possessing clearances of “secret” and above are generally more marketable and generally earn significantly higher salaries than their counterparts whose jobs don’t require security clearances.

What types of jobs require clearances? Jobs addressing financial management, scientific research, diplomacy, defense, auditing, law enforcement and intelligence are most likely to require security clearances. Indeed, virtually everyone who works for the FBI — even administrative assistants — must pass security clearances.

Also, certain types of jobs are particularly likely to require security clearances — such as human resources personnel who access staffers’ personnel information, accountants who access confidential financial information, auditors who access legal information, and information technology professionals who access secure systems, to name just a few.

 

Having staffers advance is a win for all

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If you’re a manager, encourage your administrative staffers to earn career-boosting credentials and avoid stagnating in their current jobs. The more skilled, independent and nimble your staff is, the higher your office productivity will be — and the better you will look.

In addition, you will likely improve morale and discourage staffers from seeking jobs elsewhere.

To help your staffers ascend, research appropriate career tracks for them. Many responsible federal jobs only require relevant experience, not necessarily college degrees. Appropriate fields for aspiring administrative staffers without degrees include administrative officers, procurement, property management, equal opportunity, human resources, information technology and website development.

Research mentoring and training funds — available in-house or from private vendors and professional organizations — to help pay for relevant and degree-track courses. Potential training sources include the Federal Acquisition Institute, the Defense Acquisition Institute, the Graduate School, defense and intelligence agencies, and leadership training sources catalogued on the Office of Personnel Management website.

Because of ongoing shortages of acquisitions officers, training or experience in acquisitions and contracting, including as a contracting officer’s technical representative (COTR) or as an assistant COTR, are useful credentials.

Likewise, experience and certifications in project management are career-boosting credentials. And just about everyone can benefit from training in communications skills, social media, time management and congressional budget processes.

Speak directly to your staffers about their career prospects. Perhaps during performance evaluations, explain that feds must usually do more than just reliably fulfill their job descriptions to land promotions. Rather, they must go beyond the call of duty and exceed their job descriptions, without showing a sense of entitlement for promotions.

Discuss with your staffers their interests and strengths. Remind them that the more intensive, specialized experience they gain, the more likely they will be to become the “go to” people for their specialties.

But by the same token, the broader an administrative professional’s skill set is, the more likely he will be to stand out from the pack of one-trick ponies he may compete against. So, assure your staffers you will try to offer them assignments and training that not only enhance their credentials in their specialties but also expand their skills and address their weaknesses.

Encourage staffers to identify, design and volunteer to lead or co-lead needed projects and to identify training opportunities and detail assignments that would help them qualify for their target jobs. For example, advise your employees to identify committees on which they could serve to broaden their knowledge of your agency’s management strategies and expose them to other feds — and help them grow their reputations.

Also, emphasize the importance of learning about the substantive policy and management issues addressed by your agency.

More ways to help your staffers advance:

• Nominate them for awards, as warranted.

• Build promotion potential into new jobs.

• Suggest that employees earn advanced degrees or degrees in high-demand fields from vocational schools.

• Provide opportunities for administrative staffers to train others and earn supervisory experience.

Leaders don’t wait, they create

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If you’re aiming for a leadership position, trade any potentially inhibiting passivity and inertia for initiative, perseverance and drive. As an anonymous quote says: “Leaders don’t wait. They shape their own frontiers.”

I spoke with Farrell Chiles, author of “As BIG As It Gets” and board chairman of Blacks in Government (BIG) from 2002 to 2006. He offers these strategies for shaping your own frontier:

Absorb knowledge. Gain expertise in all business functions of your organization — including procurement, human resources, contracting, information technology, budgeting, project management — even if these topics don’t interest you. You then will be prepared to make sound business judgments about all office operations.

Identify your knowledge gaps and then fill them by seeking appropriate projects, detail assignments and volunteer experience, and by exploiting training opportunities offered by your agency and professional organizations.

For example, BIG runs a highly competitive leadership academy for its members and has sponsored lectures from Senior Executive Service members on how to qualify for the SES. Many other professional organizations similarly provide leadership training.

Be first. “When I ran for elections in BIG and other organizations,” says Chiles, “I tried to beat others to the punch — to announce my candidacy first and early.” Chiles publicized his support and asked others to endorse his candidacy in order to convince potential rivals of the futility of competing against him.

Toughen your skin. “It can be lonely at the top; you have to be prepared for that,” Chiles warns.

”Being a strong leader sometimes requires making unpopular decisions, and even sometimes making decisions that you might not necessarily agree with yourself,” he says. “You must be prepared to take the bull by the horns, and bear criticism and negative responses from others. But remember, business decisions are not personal — they are business decisions.”

Chiles also emphasizes the importance of providing clear, cogent rationale for decisions after the fact. “I had to explain the consequences of our actions and our inactions,” he says. “You listen to the objectors. Try to respond in a positive, professional manner. And thank others for their different points of view.”

Go for the long haul. Don’t let occasional defeats paralyze you. You don’t need a 100 percent success rate to maintain a leadership position.

“I have studied leaders, especially political leaders,” says Chiles. “They don’t win every election and might not be on the winning side of every vote. But you have to stay in the game, and have a generally good win-loss record. Most importantly, persistence with integrity pays off.”

Get beyond flattery. Get outside of insulated bubbles filled by ego-boosting “yes people” and aggressively solicit candor from advisers. Create a safe environment for colleagues, staffers and others to provide honest feedback — including opposing arguments — on your decisions, speeches and strategies.

Reward others. Part of being a benevolent and popular leader is to publicly thank hard-working staffers for their contributions. For example, while Chiles was president of BIG’s Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Chapter, he helped initiate various awards, including Public Service Recognition Awards to deserving BIG members and to particular federal agencies for helping to foster a positive image for government service.

“The intent of the PSRA,” Chiles writes in his book, “was to provide recognition to our members who seldom received awards or recognition at their agencies. We presented each award at the recipient’s agency in front of their peers and bosses. The agency award was given to one particular agency to get more buy-in to BIG and to get unspoken commitment to support our programs.”

Give personal touches. While serving as board chairman, Chiles sent holiday and congratulatory cards to board members, issued end-of-term awards to departing board members, and sent cards acknowledging major milestones in BIG members’ lives, such as promotions, anniversaries, birthdays, college graduations and retirements.

Such seemingly small gestures may make big, lasting impressions on those whose support you need.

Successful leaders know how to ‘work the room’

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Kenneth Blanchard, author of “The One Minute Manager” and a management expert, said that the key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority. And the keys to influence are relationships, advises Farrell Chiles, author of “As BIG As It Gets” and board chairman of Blacks in Government (BIG) from 2002 to 2006.

How can you — as an aspiring leader or current leader — build potentially pivotal relationships?

Network aggressively, Chiles said in an interview. It is easier to win votes for a run for an elective office or gain support for your ideas from people who have previously enjoyed favorable contact with you — even if only in passing — than from complete strangers.

Likewise, people will generally be more eager to join your organization if you attempt to recruit them via personal contacts than via anonymous solicitations.

Following these principles, after reading several books by networking guru Susan RoAne, Chiles embarked on a bold networking campaign that involved “always doing my best to approach people at all levels of the hierarchy, ask them how they are doing, thank them for all they do for BIG, and try to show that my leadership is a caring leadership,” Chiles said. “Wherever I go, I try to put myself in the position of a host and introduce people to one another.”

One way that Chiles does so is by arriving early for meetings and conferences, walking the meeting area, greeting attendees regardless of whether he already knows them, initiating light conversations and introducing attendees to one another.

He recommends kicking off such interactions by asking attendees such questions as: “Have we met before?” “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to this event?”

In addition, Chiles arms himself with conversational points for such interactions by reading the newspaper and watching the news every morning.

Also, Chiles takes care to remember peoples’ names after meeting them and to use them whenever he meets them again. He follows up with new acquaintances via occasional or strategically timed phone calls or emails.

In the past, such follow up “allowed me to continue to sell myself and my abilities as board chair, and gave members venting opportunities,” Chiles said. In fact, Chiles attributes his record-breaking longevity as BIG’s board chair, in part, to his ability to “work a room” and his dedication to maintaining positive one-on-one relationships with each of the 24 BIG board members who voted on each of his five bids for the board’s chairmanship.

Study public speaking, even if you hate it, Chiles said. Though he has always been eager to interact with small groups of people, he long dreaded public speaking. Nevertheless, early in his career, Chiles realized that he would have to become an inspirational public speaker in order to become a leader.

And so many years ago, Chiles began working doggedly to improve his presentation skills by attending executive speech courses, joining a corporate speech club and participating in public speaking competitions.

Even so, Chiles’ biggest dread remained delivering opening presentations at annual BIG meetings that were typically attended by more than 3,000 members. “Each time, all I wanted to do was to get up, speak for less than eight minutes, and sit down,” he says in his book.

But recognizing the importance of working on weaknesses rather than ignoring them, Chiles continued to hone his public speaking skills by immersing himself in the topic at hand, repeatedly rehearsing his speeches until he could deliver them flawlessly, working to exude confidence and passion and pumping himself up before each speech via self-talk and mind-mapping — imagining himself succeeding at the podium before each speech.

The result: Chiles earned critical acclaim for many of his BIG speeches and is now regularly offered paid speaking gigs — which he actually enjoys pursuing.

Which just goes to show: You don’t necessarily need to have a natural affinity for an activity to ultimately excel in it.

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Expand your career network with contacts

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As they say, information is power. So here are some information sources to help you increase your power to network, obtain advice, generate potentially pivotal contacts, get into the limelight and make strategic career moves.

Leadership directories. Need intel on a particular fed? Gathering background information on hiring managers before interviews or on new bosses will probably help you to anticipate their emphases and to prepare effective pitches for them. Such background information may also reveal to you shared common ground that will help you establish positive rapport with them.

One way to obtain such information is to download, for a fee, profiles of federal leaders, managers and staffers at www. leadershipdirectories.com. (Also, remember to look for intel on particular feds via Google searches, LinkedIn and Facebook.)

Also available at leadership directories.com are the Congressional Yellow Book and Federal Yellow Book. These directories provide the titles and contact information — including current email addresses — of leaders, managers and staffers at each federal agency and congressional office. This information may be helpful if you want to identify feds you should target for informational interviews, requests for advice, speaking invitations or invitations to join interagency workgroups.

You may be able to access these directories for free through your agency’s public affairs office or through academic libraries.

GovLoop.org. This ever-growing social networking site for government professionals offers various free services, including opportunities to advertise or find job openings, announce events, ask questions to the government community, lead or participate in online trainings and discussions about best practices in particular fields or about general career, management or leadership issues.

GovLoop features a “Rock Your Resume” service that offers free feedback on resumes from professional career experts. “Govloop’s Mentors” program provides training on nurturing mentoring relationships, and matches some users with mentors. Hint: The more you interact with other feds, the better your chances will be of developing key relationships and finding unadvertised openings.

Resources provided by federal career coach Derrick Dortch. These resources include Dortch’s radio show, Fed Access, which airs at noon Friday at 1500 AM in Washington, D.C., and is archived at www.federalnewsradio.com. The show covers a wide range of career topics including successful career maneuvers, security clearances, high-demand jobs, the work of particular agencies, federal hiring trends, special hiring programs, best practices in various federal sectors, and career options in fields of special interest, such as intelligence and espionage.

Dortch also writes on federal careers for The Washington Post. Find these articles by typing his name into the search window at www.washingtonpost.com.

Unions. Some unions email their members the latest news on the ongoing budget battles and the status of legislation addressing federal salaries and benefits.

Websites on agency performance. The Partnership for Public Service provides annual ratings and analyses of employee satisfaction at hundreds of federal organizations at www.bestplaces towork.org. A federal site, www.performance.gov, posts articles and data on agency efforts to improve federal practices in acquisition, financial management, human resources, technology, performance improvement, open government, sustainability and customer service.

 These sites may help you identify best practices in your field. And when you are job hunting, these sites may help you identify the achievements of your target agencies — information that you may want to incorporate into your cover letters and job interviews to demonstrate your knowledge of your target agencies.

 

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More suggestions for bereavement help

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Sooner or later, just about every office is touched by a death in the family of a staff member. My Aug. 8 column provided tips on how to handle this type of sad situation. Here are more tips:

• Express sympathy only if you are certain a colleague has already been informed of his loss. You could, for example, learn of your colleague’s loss before he does if you receive the news via a potentially fast information channel, such as Facebook, rather than a slower and more formal information channel that is carrying the news to him. Deaths that occur overseas and therefore involve varying time zones, geographical distance and potential chain-of-command mix-ups may be particularly prone to such communication problems.

• If one of your colleagues or subordinates becomes overwrought after being informed of a major loss and you know that he is about to go home to an empty house, consider accompanying him, recruiting someone else to do so, or encouraging the bereaved person to arrange for a friend or relative to be with him.

• If you supervise someone who experiences a major loss, encourage him to take care of himself and, if he takes time off from work, tell him not to worry about work while he is gone. Then, when the bereaved person returns to work, go easy on him by putting him on the functional equivalent of “light duty” — don’t nag him about deadlines, guilt-trip him about what he missed during his absence or immediately heap work on him. If you are a friend or close colleague, offer to take some responsibilities off his hands, if possible and appropriate.

• When a newly bereaved person returns to the office after taking time off, don’t treat him like a pariah or show a “deer in the headlights” expression the first time you encounter him. Instead, acknowledge your colleague’s return with sensitivity. If you haven’t expressed sympathy, remember that it is never too late to do so.

If you have expressed sympathy, gently acknowledge your colleague’s return with a hug, if appropriate, and a comment, such as “I am glad you were able to return.” And never greet a returning bereaved person with an excited “welcome back!” as if he had just returned from Disneyland.

• If you have a collegial relationship with a bereaved person who has just returned to the office, offer to take him out to lunch yourself or with a few other colleagues. But when you invite him, assure him that if he is not yet ready for such interaction, he can take a rain check when he is feeling better.

• Don’t discuss with a bereaved person aspects of your life that would emphasize to him the magnitude of his loss. For example, if your colleague lost a child, don’t brandish photographs or screen savers of your children. Also, don’t bring up your children in conversations, including updates on how well or how poorly they are doing, how excited you are about their impending homecoming or what nice thing they recently did or didn’t do for you. How long should you avoid such topics? Maybe forever.

• If appropriate, organize your colleagues to provide practical support to your bereaved colleague. For example, I know a government employee who unexpectedly lost her teenage son in a freak traffic accident. Understandably, the bereaved mother and her family were somewhat emotionally incapacitated for some time after their loss. So the bereaved mother’s workmates — a close-knit group — alternated bringing dinner to the bereaved family for the month following their loss. Alternatively, arrange for food to be delivered or purchase a gift card for take-out from an appealing eatery for the bereaved family.

• Remember that loss is permanent. This means that when your bereaved colleague returns to work and for long after, he may look and act fine without really being fine inside. What’s more, after his initial grieving ends, he probably won’t receive much further attention or sympathy.

So as time passes, try to gauge how your bereaved colleague is doing and whether he seems to want to talk about his loss. If you sense he wants to talk, continue to ask how he and his family are doing.