Fast Legal Answers: Advice for federal employees dealing with workplace issues

In today’s Fast Legal Answers series I will talking about what to do if you are a federal employee that is facing removal, a suspension, or a demotion at work. Additionally, this article covers other topics such as discrimination and EEOC claims, the processes that need to be followed, and common mistakes federal employees make when handling these kind of cases.

Document everything – hard copies are your friend

Regardless of what issues you are facing in the federal workplace, it is generally safe to say that you should make sure you are documenting what is happening and keeping a paper record of significant events. You shouldn’t expect your agency to keep, or provide, backup copies of documents to you. In some instances, they may be unable or unwilling. Be vigilant about keeping personal copies of documents that you receive from the agency or that you anticipate may be important evidence in the future.

If you’re facing discipline the two most important documents you will receive are the proposal and decision letter. These letters outline your rights, the charges against you and provide very specific details on how to proceed, and important deadlines. You can read more specifics in our federal employee discipline guide.

If you are dealing with a potential discrimination/EEOC claim you should be independently documenting any discriminatory events. You should also be documenting who observed these events, your reaction to the events and any harm you suffered a result of these events. If you are facing discrimination in the workplace our federal EEOC guide is a must read.

Deadlines are short – stay on top of them

The deadlines in federal employment cases are significantly shorter than most deadlines in just about any other are of the law. The deadlines are so short that employment attorneys inexperienced in federal-sector employment law will likely be surprised by how little time they have to help a client file a case. For example, federal EEO claims must be initiated with 45 days of the alleged incident, whereas private-sector employees have 180 to 300 days to file a claim.

Similarly, MSPB appeals typically must be initiated within 30 days of receiving a notice of an adverse action (decision letter). Similarly, after filing an MSPB appeal you typically only have 30 days to initiate discovery, failing to do so may result in you waiving the right to engage in discovery entirely.

If you don’t stay on top of these deadlines they may prevent you from pursuing your case or greatly limiting the claims you can raise. You should always consult with an experienced attorney regarding deadlines and rights. Missing a deadline is such a simple mistake that can have devastating results.

Federal Employment Law is a Unique Practice Area

As the deadlines above demonstrate, federal employment issues are governed by a unique and different set of rules than most other employment cases. This means that you, or your attorney, need to have a complete and full understanding of these unique rules. In short, not all employment lawyers are created equal. Just because someone is an employment attorney, that does not mean they are equipped to handle your federal employment case. You should ask pointed questions related to your representative’s experience before the MSPB, EEOC and negotiating settlements with various federal agencies. If your representative doesn’t have experience handling cases in the federal-sector you should reevaluate your decision to hire them.

Challenging managers and other employees will likely lead to trouble

As jaded as this may sound, what follows is the truth: employees that challenge other employees or their managers are more likely to get into trouble at work. This is not to say you should be dissuaded from reporting fraud, waste, and abuse, or challenging co-workers on issues of great importance–but just know that once you do that you may become persona non grata. If you look at the people that typically become managers in the federal sector, generally they are the kind of people that don’t ask questions, do not challenge authority, and do what they are told.

Trouble leads to more trouble

Once you’ve been subject to a disciplinary action, any subsequent action is likely to be more significant in severity. This is due to the progressive nature of discipline in the federal workplace. Additionally, as a matter of common sense if you have done something to draw the ire of management in the past you should expect to receive greater scrutiny in the future. Therefore it is important that you operate within the rules and policies provided to you by your agency and that if you are unclear you seek clarification through your chain of command.

There are laws to protect you

Federal employees are granted much more protection than your typical private-sector employee. For example, most private-sector employees can be summarily terminated whereas federal employees are assured notice an opportunity to respond and can typically invoke the right to a hearing to challenge their termination. However, if you are not versed in these laws, or do not hire a competent representative to assist you, you mail fail to invoke the full protection of laws which you are entitled. If you don’t work to protect your rights no one will. In many instances you need to be your own advocate.