Since President Trump signed a memorandum to freeze federal hiring on Jan. 23, it seems not a day has gone by without questions regarding how it should be applied.
While there are a variety of opinions on whether the freeze is the right approach to reshaping the government, there has been little discussion about how federal leaders should handle this situation in the short term and potentially for the long run.
Given the current climate, federal managers would be smart to figure out what they need to do between now and April to cope with the hiring freeze, and to begin developing contingency plans for the year ahead.
The presidential memo directs the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the Office of Personnel Management, to recommend within 90 days from the issuance of the order a long-term plan to reduce the size of government through attrition. The current hiring freeze will expire once this plan is in place, but it is likely to be continued in some form.
I reached out to several federal leaders for their thoughts, and here is some of the collective wisdom based on their experiences in previous administrations.
First, do your homework. Agency leaders and the director of OPM can make exemptions for national security and public safety, and the definition of what that means is open to interpretation.
After releasing the original executive order, information was provided regarding exemptions for internal promotions, as well as for hiring civilian intelligence personnel and employees at the postal service. A number of agencies also have taken steps to ameliorate the impact of the order. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, granted wide-ranging exemptions in dozens of job classifications from doctors to support staff and food-service workers.
Managers should consult with their agency leaders – particularly permanent or acting deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries for administration and management, chief human capital officers and others – to get advice. In the absence of concrete guidance, urge these leaders – or work with them directly – to outline the decision-making processes for hiring that can take place under the current order.
Inaction on your part is simply not an option. But as my former colleague and civil service expert John Palguta suggested, “Don’t cry wolf unless there is one outside the door.”
If you firmly believe that mission-critical work will be in jeopardy because of a vacancy, put your evidence together and make your case. To do this, you will need to demonstrate the negative consequences of keeping a position vacant, and how it is critical to public safety and national security. Sometimes the link may be tangential depending on the circumstances, but could pass muster.
There is no guarantee that agency leaders will listen to your concerns or be able to help, but it is your responsibility to think things through and to advocate for the resources needed to achieve your mission and goals.
Finally, buckle up and get ready for more to come this spring. The January memorandum clearly indicates that the administration is planning to reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition, so it would be wise to develop plans to handle a decrease in staff or an increase in workload.
As part of this process, take the pulse of your employees and solicit ideas about prioritizing work in the absence of any new hires needed now or in the long term. One-on-one check-ins are great for hearing employee challenges, helping them determine what work might be delayed and where others might help fill the gaps. If you are not already holding regular team meetings with your employees, do not wait any longer. As a leader, you need to keep abreast of your employee’s workload, stress and views, and solicit their advice to develop creative solutions.
If you wait until after the next memorandum comes out, you will need to scramble. If you are prepared, however, you can implement your plan or amend it as needed based on the actual events.
If you have other ideas or advice based on your experience, please share your thoughts in the comment section or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.