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Careful What You Say

By Mike Causey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 1997; Page B02

In this era of heightened awareness and political correctness, federal workers who want to keep getting a paycheck should be very careful about what they say. Or write.

E-mail and fax machines can transmit touchy terms around the world faster than you can say "five-day suspension."

If you think this watch-your-mouth advice is hype, consider the postal manager who used the term "slaves" instead of "employees." Some co-workers weren't amused at his attempt to be lighthearted. The incident quickly became a federal case.

The customer service manager got into trouble when he sent this message to the finance office: "This is the report no one knows about. Took most of the day to complete. If you want this broken down into weeks, have Brenda fire up her slaves."

Workers who saw the message complained that it was a racial slur. An administrative law judge agreed. The Office of Personnel Management's "Consultant," which tracks interesting in-house federal labor relations cases, said the administrative law judge found that the comments had "significant racial overtones" and had a "traumatic effect" on some of the clerks who read it. The judge also said the postal manager didn't show sufficient remorse. He recommended demotions in pay and grade.

The postal manager apologized and said he did not intend to be racially insensitive. The Merit Systems Protection Board reviewed the record. While it agreed that the employee's use of such language was foolish, the board did not find that the statement was racist or that it had a damaging effect on postal operations. The board reversed the demotion order and said a five-day suspension was the reasonable maximum penalty.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

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