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The Federal Coach
Posted at 01:28 PM ET, 06/22/2012

How to avoid negative headlines and stay out of trouble

As a federal leader, seeing your name on the front page of The Washington Post can be good news or bad news.

If you’ve saved a life or millions of dollars for the taxpayers, you’ll be hailed as a hero. Unfortunately, many headlines are reserved for some sort of waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement of federal funds.

No one sets out to get in trouble, but they end up there nonetheless. If you’re interested in avoiding negative public attention and keeping your neck off the chopping block, here are some rules for federal leaders to live by.

1. Remember that you work in a fishbowl. Anything you say or do on the job might become public. Government transparency includes not only the possibility that a Freedom of Information Act request might be filed, but it also speaks to a public service value that encourages information sharing. Be judicious and think before you act or speak.

2. Don’t think what’s on social media like Facebook and Twitter is only shared with your friends. It’s not always just what you say or do in the workplace that can get you in trouble. One fed I know has likened leading in government to being the star of a reality show. The pictures of a certain General Services Administration employee posing in a hot tub in Las Vegas provide an all-too graphic reminder that everything online can become public eventually.

3. Seek to identify and prevent problems from occurring in the first place. It’s almost always easier to stop something bad from happening — especially if it involves fraud, waste, or abuse — than it is to clean up the mess after it’s happened.

4. Avoid engaging in partisan political activities. Passion around the election will undoubtedly run high this summer and fall, but most federal leaders know that they need to check their political views at the office door. Even outside the office, there are limitations on what you can do. For example, you may not host a political fundraiser. If you need any reminders, check out the resources from the Office of Special Counsel.

5. Treat your colleagues, customers and employees fairly and with respect. Whether you are interacting with your employees, your partners or members of the public, don’t give anyone preferential treatment. Merit and ethics are the rule in the public sector. The Office of Government Ethics has a whole set of ideas for avoiding anything that appears unethical.

6. Don’t bully the messenger or hide problems when they arise. You may not be the one surfacing allegations of waste, fraud, abuse or corruption, but you may have responsibility for managing someone who’s raised a red flag. Too often whistleblowers are treated like the crazy cousin no one talks about. If you need to know how to handle the situation, I’ll once again point you to the Office of Special Counsel. But in general, don’t seek to sweep serious problems under the rug. The cover-up can turn out to be worse for you than the initial offense.

7. Ignore individual differences that are not related to a person’s ability to get the job done. It’s illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Yet, allegations of discrimination seem to still occur. Check out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for more information.

8. Don’t profit from actions taken or knowledge gained in your job. Wall Street may have problems with insider-trading, but federal managers run the same risk given that they have access to sensitive information in any number of different areas. The Office of Government Ethics has some useful information on this topic and on how to avoid financial conflicts of interest.

9. Don’t make promises you cannot keep. This applies as much to making commitments to outside organization as it does to employees. Nothing hurts credibility more or runs the risk of some sort of legal action like making a promise you are unable to keep or which you do not intend to keep.

What would you add to this list of rules? What other resources would you share with other federal leaders interested in doing the right thing? Please share your ideas in the comments section below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

By  |  01:28 PM ET, 06/22/2012

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