Government Supervisor Contracts Work I Could Do

Question:

I work for a tax-payer-funded public office headed by an elected official. My supervisor insists on contracting out some of our work which I have requested to do and with which I have some expertise. I have the time and ability to do this work without taxing anybody else in my work group.

My supervisor’s supervisor knows I wish to do the work, but allows my supervisor to make the call about contracting it out. My supervisor is rumored to have had a past affair with the woman to whom he gives the work (source: her ex-husband). They do have a social relationship of some kind (have lunch together). On January 3, a newly elected official will head my office. I have been encouraged by co-workers to talk to the new head and his first assistant about this and other issues regarding my supervisor. But, I know I would be in trouble with both my supervisor and his supervisor if I did. Any advice? ************************************* Please keep this confidential. I was impressed with your thoughtful and detailed answer, and it spurred me to action which I think will be helpful to our office. I went to a trusted friend who is a level above me in a different department. She in turn approached my supervisor’s supervisor–a department head–to set up a meeting with me and the department head. My friend (whom the department head supervises and trusts) agreed to go along. My friend also met with me 2 or 3 times to review what I proposed to say at the meeting, and she gave me advice very much like the advice I see on your website (“stick to the facts and your own experience”). In a 2-hour meeting at a coffee shop, I explained all of the issues with the supervisor. I used a format I’ve seen you suggest in another “Ask A Question.” Every point I made had two parts: 1) “here are the facts that I know;” 2) “here is why it is harmful to our office.” It worked. The department head listened carefully, learned some things he didn’t know, and said the information altered his perspective.

Since I didn’t know any facts about the alleged relationship, I didn’t mention it at all. In fact, the issue of contracting out work was only a small part of the conversation, which centered on other problems in my supervisor’s work performance. Sticking to the known facts established the credibility of the information and–I believe–is what reached the department head deeply enough to alter his perspective. This was not an easy thing to take on. My supervisor aligns himself closely with the department head, the head’s boss, and the head’s boss’s boss–who is the elected official. My supervisor also worked on the campaign of the new elected official–but only after it became clear the new guy was the front-runner. My supervisor displays his connections with top management to his subordinates and the rest of the office. As a result, it did not appear there was anywhere to go with information about how his job performance was hurting the office. But I found out the department head was much more open-minded than I had assumed. In addition, on a different channel, others who have the ear of the new elected official have approached him with concerns about my supervisor. (I think of this other channel as “the cabal”–because they are motivated by revenge, settling past scores, and power through intrigue). “The cabal” has mentioned my name to the new elected as a source of factual information. (“The cabal” mentioned me because, to my regret, I have complained about my supervisor to members of “the cabal”–thereby not following the advice you have given in other “Ask A Question” columns).

As a result of urging from “the cabal,” the new elected has asked me to meet with him and his first assistant. But, the department head knew nothing of “the cabal” or the new elected’s request to meet with me. So, when I met with the department head, I brought him into the loop. Now he won’t be blind-sided–in fact, he’s better-informed than “the cabal”.

In addition, he can suggest a solution, which he is well-equipped to do.

If you’re interested, I will let you know what ultimately comes of this. I ask you to keep this confidential because I have proclaimed the value of your website to others in my office, and it has been suggested that we put your site up in our office intranet. I’d hate to have people know what went on behind the scenes in this situation. Thanks so much for all your help.

Signed,

Troubled


Answer:

Dear Troubled:

Coworkers often are very brave when it comes to pushing someone else out in front! I think you’re wise to give this some serious consideration.

It sounds as though there are several things going on with your supervisor that you consider problematic and this issue of contractual work is just one example. Let me share some thoughts that might help you with your decision about this situation.

In most government jurisdictions whistle-blowing rules protect someone who is reporting what they consider to be law or ethical violations, especially about contracts. The elected official would most likely want to know about provable wrong doing or even about chronic problems in general.

But, the reality is that even though your job might be protected and even though the elected official might care, it’s wise to consider the risks in relation to the likely results. Even chronic problems may not be considered significant enough to take strong action.

1. You don’t mention that the matter is so urgent as to require action immediately after the newly elected official takes office, so waiting may have some benefits.

*For one thing, you never know what will happen in the first few weeks of the new administration and something may occur that will make a difference in all of it.

Also, in the early days the elected official and his staff won’t have enough time to do more than shuffle a complaint back to your supervisor’s supervisor–and you know how that will probably end up.

*By waiting you avoid being just one of many new problem issues the official has to deal with. You reduce the likelihood that you will be seen as someone who has been waiting to complain out of negative motives. You also will have time to establish a strong or stronger foundation for your actions.

*According to the size and culture of your organization, you may get your chance to talk to the top boss without any effort on your part. For example, he may meet with everyone in some offices or at some levels. If so, you could use the time to bring up your concerns.

If your governmental agency is so large that it wouldn’t be common for you to meet with the official, you will need to plan the meeting more carefully.

2. Think about how serious this issue is and if it is something that only you can and should report. Looking at it as an outsider, your concerns about the contract seem to be based on your opinion (you can do the job as well and it doesn’t need to be contracted out) and hearsay (the contractor and the supervisor have a close–maybe very close–relationship.

You don’t indicate you know of a law, rule or policy that forbids anything that is happening. I do agree it’s poor judgment, but that might not merit action from the top down.

*Are you the only one who can report this matter higher up? What about coworkers who have knowledge of it? Who else could support you so you are not alone?

*Do you think the work situation is so bad you can’t continue to work with effectiveness or that you can’t find any enjoyment at work? If you can’t make a change are things so bad you will quit?

*Will an investigation of all you know likely result in the firing or demotion of the supervisor? If not, will you still be working with him? Is that something you want to deal with?

I know you want things to change. But, unless your complaint starts an investigation that proves serious wrongdoing, you may not get the change you seek. So, it’s worthwhile to consider every aspect…as you apparently are doing.

3. Consider if this specific situation has been audited or reviewed by others and no wrongdoing was found. Did someone review the request for contractual work and approve it? That will give you an idea of what statements will be made in an investigation.

Your supervisor’s supervisor apparently knows about it and finds no problem. So, it could be the supervisor has a logical reason to contract out instead of using in-house people. (That doesn’t make his reason valid, but it could make it sound OK to others.)

Reasons that may be considered acceptable:

*You may be willing to do the work but perhaps the supervisor can show that you may not be able to do it with the quality, quantity and consistent turn-around time required. Or, maybe you might not have the time to do it every time because of regular job duties, so it’s easier to have someone on contract.

*Perhaps it would change your job description to do the task regularly and that’s a precedent HR and others don’t want to set. Or, perhaps they are concerned that doing the task all the time will encourage you to seek a higher pay-scale.

*Maybe using an outside person prevents arguments over who should be doing it in-house–especially if doing the task would have an effect on job descriptions.

*There could be something about the task that benefits from having an outsider deal with it.

*The amount paid may not be so large as to be significant, so using a contract person makes it easier without risking overtime.

*There may be something about your work currently that would lead your supervisor to say you would not be the best choice. I’m not saying that’s the case, but could be used to justify the outside contractor. (Among the things are quality and quantity of work, attendance and behavior and performance in general.)

None of those things may be applicable to your situation, but it may be there is some plausible reason your manager has given his manager, which led to the contractual work being approved.

4. Is your supervisor’s supervisor aware of the friendship between the supervisor and the contractor? It isn’t often that a manager will risk disciplinary action or firing to aid a supervisor in helping out a girlfriend.

Is the information about the friendship that you would give to the elected official significant enough that it would also have an effect on the thinking of your manager if he knew it? If not, what makes you think it would be considered very serious by the elected official? Just a thought to consider.

5. Here is something you can do while you are giving the situation a bit more time: Try asking about this contract again, to see if being a bit more specific will at least require your supervisor to provide some answers. Submit a written request to your supervisor. It doesn’t have to be a formal letter, just a routine email. But, it should be focused solely on asking to be allowed to do the work as a way to save money and to keep the work in-house where it can be done more effectively and efficiently.

Often an employee will think they have made their thoughts clear when in reality they have only hinted about it, joked about it, asked a question here or there or just had a casual conversation. What is needed is a written statement and request, so there is no doubt about what you are asking and your logical reasons for asking for the change.

*In your email ask if there is some reason it wouldn’t work well for you to do it. Reiterate that you think it would be a good move for it to be done in-house and that you would like the variety of the task (or whatever reasons you have.)

*If you really want to be strong about it you could say that you would like to discuss it with your supervisor and your supervisor’s supervisor.

*Whether you contact someone at the highest levels or not over the next month or so, this letter to your supervisor will at least be something you can point to if questions are raised at another time.

6. If no changes are made over the next month or so and you are told the contractual work will continue, you can decide then if the time and situation is right to go higher up with your concerns or if you still want to do so. Consider some of these actions:

*Contact an ethics hotline, if there is one for your governmental jurisdiction. Usually those are anonymous. If you know about the contractor friendship, many others do too. So, the call wouldn’t automatically be assumed to be from you if it is investigated. *Talk first to someone you trust in a lateral position in another department. Or, talk to someone you know and trust at a higher level but not in your department. They might have knowledge you can use or a viewpoint you need. They might also support you if it’s needed down the line. *Before you talk to the elected official or the first assistant, talk to HR or talk to a member of the attorney staff that represents your governmental jurisdiction. That may provide you with protection. It will probably also result in a report about your conversation with them. *If you go the highest level, put in writing that you are concerned about what might happen to you at work if your supervisor finds out what you have done. Ask that your name not be used unless it is necessary. Say you will make a statement as part of an investigation in which others are making statements too, so you don’t stand out as the only one making a statement.

7. While you are doing all of this, continue to show your own excellent work and improve on it when you can. If you already have a strong and positive reputation you only have to reinforce it.

I don’t know if these thoughts are applicable enough to your specific situation to be helpful, but perhaps they will add to your decision-making process.

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. Or, follow-up as things progress. Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.