Six useful findings from the patent office’s filtered telework report

A Washington Post report this week revealed that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office filtered out many of the worst findings from an internal investigation of alleged telework abuses among the agency’s examiners.

Although the final report is missing many of the troubling findings from investigators, it still provides some useful insights into potential problems the agency can address in its telework program, specifically with work-verification. Here are six findings from the filtered report that could be instructive for the patent office:


The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Big brother concerns:  Records of how often workers use their ID badges, as well as their research activity and use of computers, e-mail and phones can help determine the accuracy of time and attendance reports. But agency leaders are concerned about the perception of “big brother” surveillance activities, and some have said the records should simply not be pulled, according to the report.

“Safety zone” letters: These messages inform examiners that they are not performing at acceptable levels. Supervisors can only resort to verbal warnings if the work does not improve after sending a safety letter. This policy is intended to allow employee performance to fluctuate temporarily without bosses going straight to disciplinary actions, but some supervisors said it extends the amount of time required to deal with poor work, according to the report.

Timesheets: The patent office requires its teleworking examiners to record how many hours they work, but the employees do not have to report the specific times that they were on the job. The report said this fact limited the ability to determine whether they are complying with work-schedule policies.

Checking in: The patent office has few policies regarding how often its examiners must communicate with supervisors throughout the day, according to the report. The guidelines that exist range from a union-negotiated agreement to check voicemail “near the beginning and midpoint” of each workday to “check and respond appropriately to voicemail and e-mail periodically.” They do not specify what “appropriate” or “periodically” mean, leaving compliance open to interpretation and debate.

Certifying accuracy: The patent office did not have a policy defining how its supervisors should certify employees’ time and attendance reports. However, the agency recently developed guidance to address the issue, saying supervisors should certify  reports unless they have “concern or direct knowledge” of abuses. In cases of suspected abuse, the supervisors are expected to look for signs of inconsistent activity, non-responsiveness to communications, customer complaints and other issues.

“End-loading”: Some examiners do the lion’s share of their work toward the end of the quarter, a practice known as “end-loading.” The concern is that some employees slack off until it’s time to submit their work. This may not seem like a big deal as long as the work is done. But the report noted that “it is widely believed that end-loading produces a lower quality work product and, thus, is not a desired practice.” It also said the patent office has no method for determining whether examiners are working the required number of hours for every pay period despite end-loading.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks · August 11