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Legal Insider: Tips for Federal Employees During the Pandemic and in the Return To Work

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

We represent many federal employees in the workplace, including defending federal employees against proposed disciplinary actions. Despite the common belief that it’s hard to discipline or remove a federal employee, that is simply not the case. Federal employees quite often face disciplinary and adverse actions.

The following are some general tips regarding how to avoid these potential problems. There are too many to list here, but the following are some good ones to consider.

Get Along With Supervisors

Not getting along with supervisors is the leading cause of disciplinary actions for federal employees. When serious disagreements arise between a supervisor and his or her subordinate, it degrades the employment relationship, which often leads to future disciplinary or performance issues. Even in difficult situations, federal employees should do their best to be professional and pleasant to supervisors (and then find other employment or a transfer if need be). This is not always easily accomplished.

Don’t Use the Internet at Work for Personal Use

While many federal agencies are somewhat relaxed in their enforcement of these types of internet policies, it’s important to avoid using the internet for personal use while at work. Also, avoid using government-issued computers for personal use (e.g. laptops). We have represented many federal employees who are investigated for either inappropriate use of the internet (accessing inappropriate sites), misuse of government computers or in regards to too frequent personal internet use.

Often, we defend federal employees who have used the internet for Facebook, Twitter or even personal banking. It is important to keep in mind that, if an agency wants to, they can quickly determine personal usage and an investigation can start.

Avoid Using Government Email for Personal Use

It is best practice to use your personal email account for personal email correspondence. There are some exceptions. We have represented a number of federal employees who have been proposed for discipline due to misuse of their official government email account, especially with respect to certain types of content. Sometimes the federal employee’s issues involve using government email for personal use or sending inappropriate correspondence or photos. Also avoid using quotations or sayings in signature blocks when corresponding to others using your government email account.

Do Not Use Government Credit Cards for Personal Use

This happens frequently and many times it’s just mistaken use. We have represented many federal employees who have innocently used their government credit card for personal charges. Not only are many federal employees disciplined or removed for such misuse, but they can be forced to repay the funds to the government. Even if policies on credit card usage are not apparently enforced, do not use a government credit card for personal use under any circumstances. If an accidental use happens, consult an attorney to determine how to disclose this to your agency.

Properly Charge for Time at Work

While many federal employees are currently working from home due to the pandemic, some federal agencies are monitoring their work activity by remotely reviewing their email, computer and meeting use. This is something to be mindful of. When federal employees return to the workplace, we often see cases where a federal employee leaves work early or arrives to work late, even by 10 or 15 minutes, and does not adjust his or her time records accordingly. The federal employee then gets paid for a full workday.

Generally, this is not an issue until some other conflict arises with a supervisor which causes scrutiny or an investigation. However, a federal employee should be mindful of these issues because disciplinary actions sometimes result in these types of situations.

Take Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) Seriously

Most PIPs are really designed by federal agencies to facilitate the efficient removal of an employee, rather than to help the employee improve work performance. There are some exceptions. A PIP is almost always used by management to document their attempt to assist an employee prior to initiating their removal, despite the language used in the PIP boilerplate form that is often provided to federal employees. Seek counsel immediately in this type of situation.

Conclusion

When a federal employee is facing employment issues, it is important to obtain legal advice and potential representation. Our law firm advises individuals regarding all types of federal employment issues. We can be contacted at www.berrylegal.com or by telephone at 703-668-0070.

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