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Lawyer urges feds to follow 'obey-now-grieve-later' rule

The GSA spending scandal prompted federal employees to challenge inappropriate actions and expose misconduct. But a warning comes from a law firm that says workers who refuse questionable orders are committing insubordination, which could put their employment at risk.

“If your supervisor is telling you to do something, you could face suspension or removal if you fail to obey that order, regardless of how ludicrous or improper as it may sound, as long as what you are ordered to do does not constitute a crime” John Mahoney, partner and chair of the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at Tully Rinckey PLLC, said in a statement.

”Even if you’re ordered to buy a $10,000 hammer, you’re usually better off doing it and then blowing the whistle,” he added.

The Merit Systems Protection Board has determined there’s an exception to this “obey-now-grieve-later” rule. Federal workers are allowed to disobey if the orders are illegal or could cause harm, Mahoney said. And those employees who do end up carrying out dubious orders are also protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

But exposing misconduct does come with some risks, he cautioned.

“In the federal government, employees must obey management’s rules and orders,” Mahoney said. “As hard as it is to obey some orders, it can be even harder to expose how wrong they are because of the risk of retaliation in the form of poor performance evaluations or other adverse actions.”

What do you think of Mahoney's advice? Have you ever been in a situation where you had to obey first, then complain later? And have you seen this rule stop federal employees from exposing wrongdoing?

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Apr 27, 2012 at 12:19 PM

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Reader comments

Thu, Jun 28, 2012

I had to dispose of millions of dollars (in 1940's and 1950's money) worth of paper data because management deemed it took too long and cost too much to prperly send it to NARA. Most of the data is irreplaceable, and what could be replaced would easly run into the hundreds of millions. Just a hge colossal waste simply because we had to downsize our rentable footprint due to GSA's rent increases. I wonder how bad it will be next year?

Tue, May 1, 2012

I had no choice but to "obey" first and grieve later. I learned from experience that formal grievance decisions, in writing, are quickly discarded and are unenforceable. I filed my complaint through EEO, which fit the circumstances. My filing and mediations resulted in immediate retaliation from my supervisor in the following year's performance rating. I successfully challenged this, too. The Top Leader realized his leadership would have had a retaliation claim against them, clearly documented, so he re-evaluated my appraisal. He was wise. After I first filed my EEO complaint, it took 3.75 years to get to a court date, at which point the Fed offered an out of court settlement. Of course, they did nothing wrong! It was a paltry settlement. I was fighting for priciples, but all this has really done is to black list me as an employee. I'm not convinced that standing up for what's right is worth being labeled a "problem" employee. I will never advance in this building again. I sure won't ever become a member of the "inner circle", a polite term for the "Good Ol' Boy's Club". Whatever one's cause, make sure to have plenty of unquestionable documentation and witnesses who will come forward on your behalf. Most people won't do so, fearing for reprisal and damage to their own careers. Whistleblower laws don't protect any employees. Later, I was dismayed to learn that a lot of people where I work heard about my situation, even though it's supposed to be kept confidential. Guess I should have "shut up and colored" as one leader in my chain told me. He also said if I didn't like it, I could hit the street. So much hubris!

Mon, Apr 30, 2012

There's a division mgr who started out as an intern and through constantly "making the right connections" this person is now a division mgr in LESS than 8 yrs (just promoted I will add). The person has no unique qualifications but was "given" the job above well qualified MEN because of the "good ole girls" club that has been created. So no one can report any thing this person does wrong..the person is a "little fish" who is getting to be a "big fish" and let's everyone know it. This person knows how to use the system to get rid of ANY ONE who does not agree with this person ... NO FEAR ... bull ....if they don't stop the abusive "little fish" now they will be abusive VEGAS "big fish" in short order and no one dare stand in their way IF they want to keep their job.

Mon, Apr 30, 2012

I agree with "senior federal employee" as far as getting it in writing as CMA. However, we also don't have to follow orders that are illegal, immoral, or unethical. And I see a lot that falls under the "unethical" category. Sometimes you have to call BS and tick people off. But always make sure you have it in writing for CMA and for whatever Audit Agency or IG coming through may need to see.

Mon, Apr 30, 2012

Buy the $10,000 hammer and you could loose your job. Don't but the $10,000 and you still can loose your job. So much for ethics in the government.

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