The Federal Buzz is a weekly partnership between The Washington Post and GovLoop, a social networking site for federal workers. The Buzz recaps a topic of discussion among site visitors.

One of the trickiest parts of being a new employee is figuring out how to establish yourself within your department. Is picking up coffee below your pay grade, or just a stepping stone to bigger and better things? When agencies are short on administrative staff, it can be difficult for employees to figure out which tasks are appropriate and when it’s time to ask for something more challenging.


“I would do the task,” advises Susan Thomas, a manager at the Treasury Department. “It’s important to establish a rapport and credibility with a supervisor. If a supervisor cannot trust you to execute the small assignments, you are not likely to get the larger ones.”

Being willing to take on low-level tasks does not mean employees

should wait for managers to bestow a high-profile project upon them.

“Do those minor tasks you’re asked to do, and find something meaningful that needs to be done and make it happen,” said Doug Tharp, an employee at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “If you truly want to lead, then you must take initiative and tackle something that shows you can add real value.”

Adds Thomas, “Don’t wait to be asked to do something. Be creative. Offer to take as much as you can off the boss’s shoulders and do it well.”

Rosalee Wood, an analyst with the city of Redondo Beach, has been rewarded for approaching her supervisors directly: “Some of my favorite ‘special projects as assigned’ have literally come from presenting myself to a manager I admired and asking her in what way I could be of service to lighten her work burden.”

However, other government employees caution that being willing isn’t always enough. Federal managers are busy people and may not always have an assignment at the ready that fits an employee’s interests or skills.

David Dejewski, a former federal employee, advises workers to be thoughtful when approaching a supervisor: “I’d rather have an employee show up with a problem, a solution, and a desire to take point, than an employee who simply showed up with a willingness to do more. The former shows that a person has thought through an issue and understands context. The latter shows a happy camper who may not have any idea where they are or what the organization is doing.”

At a time when budgets are so tight that senior level employees do their own photocopying, it’s important for feds to remember that some minor tasks are par for the course.

And as Christopher A. Adams, an education specialist at the Veteran’s Health Administration, emphasized, working with dedicated staff can make a difference for your perspective:

“Getting coffee for a group of people with whom I believe we can make the world a better place is a noble task I could do for free for a long time,” he said. “Getting coffee every day for superiors who don’t know how else to use me, and who don’t seem to have any purpose or direction is something I could only do once, and not very happily even then, no matter how much the job paid.”

Where do you draw the line on small tasks?