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Top Ten Secrets of Managing Civilians

 

 

 
 
   
   
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The labor counselor down the hall from you is perhaps the best student of the on-again, off-again relationship between managers and employees. In fact, I can recall commenting to my wife, after surviving my first labor counselor action as a young Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps captain at the Presidio of Monterey, the labor counselor’s role felt like a 50/50 split—half-lawyer, half marriage counselor. And, sure enough, more than twenty years later, with most of those years spent practicing labor and employment law, I still believe the vast majority of problems managers have with civilian employees are related to a breakdown of the relationship between the two.

From our experience as human beings, we all know relationships take work. The relationship between a manager and employee is no different. In order to make that relationship successful—and thereby make both the civilian employee and the supervisor successful—both must be dedicated to working together. In my opinion, it all starts with engagement and investment. New Beginnings and Defense Performance Management and Appraisal System (DPMAP) was designed under the theory that an engaged employee is a productive employee. The more an employee identifies with the organization, its mission, its leaders, and their colleagues, the more invested that employee is. And, the more invested or engaged an employee is, the more effort they will put into accomplishing the mission.

Before I dive into the ten secrets to successfully managing civilians, I want to start by dispelling two commonly held myths. First, civilians are not watching the clock because they don’t want to work hard. The vast majority of our civilian employees are incredibly devoted, diligent, and professional public servants. They are proud of their service, and proud to be a member of the team. However, at 1700, they need to leave—not because they don’t want to finish the work on their desk, but because they want to save you from possibly violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, or other rules, regulations, and policy regarding pay and attendance. Second, there is a myth that civilians are hostile to management and development—they are set in their ways and just want to be left alone. False. Put some thought and effort into leading your Civilians and remember to follow the Golden Rule—manage them as you would like to be managed.

And now, the moment you have been waiting for . . . here are the ten secrets to success as a manager of Civilians. These are in no particular order, but I guarantee if you make at least five to seven of these part of your routine, you’ll see the difference in your workforce and they’ll see the difference in you.

  1. Find the Facebook from the office’s last Article 6 visit, and read the bios of each and every civilian in the office. Get to know them—where they have been, what they’ve been doing, and what they would change about the JAG Corps.
  2. Read each and every word in each of your employees’ position descriptions. If it’s not accurate, talk to your legal administrator (and, maybe, your labor counselor) about it.
  3. Make a spreadsheet showing each employee that works for you listing each award they’ve received and when they received it. This includes both kinds of awards—the annual performance award employees normally get when they’ve received a positive evaluation and the honorary award they should receive every three years or so, under normal circumstances. Ideally, you will find that your office has been hitting all the right marks to recognize civilian employees, but if that is not the case, fix it. Remember, we have triggers—natural prompts—for recognizing our Soldiers—e.g., promotions, PCS, and ETS. You don’t necessarily have those triggers for recognizing civilian employees. You have to make recognizing your hard-working Civilians a priority and create the mechanism to make sure you do just that.
  4. Schedule a meeting with each Civilian, either near their birthday or near the time they receive their DPMAP assessment, and review their Individual Development Plan (IDP) with them.
  5. Send each and every Civilian who works for you to some sort of training each year. Whether it’s TDY to The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, or as simple as across the hall to shadow someone in a different section—push them out of their comfort zone. They’ll eventually appreciate the broadening. And, bonus—your office will be all the better for it!
  6. Once a month, host a lunch or breakfast with the Civilians who work for you. Spend time talking with them and getting to know them. Let them get to know you.
  7. Do something for their birthdays. A card signed by everyone in the office or take them and their closest coworkers out to lunch or bring them their favorite Starbucks drink. Just don’t let them go home that day thinking the only thing you did for their birthday was review their IDP!
  8. Talk to each and every Civilian that works for you at least once a day, if you’re in the office. If you’re TDY, send them an email or text. Even if it’s just a quick “hello,” or “how was your weekend?” But, if you’re going to ask, mean it. With every member of your team, regardless of their tribe, sincerity goes a long, long way. I find this is especially true with our Civilian employees who have seen a lot of Deputy Staff Judge Advocates and Staff Judge Advocates come and go.
  9. Do performance counseling. Prepare for it. Do it face-to-face. Do it on-time. Follow-up in writing. Put effort into DPMAP—do NOT just copy and paste from previous years. There is nothing worse than feeling like your contributions are not valued and are not unique. The easiest way to fix that is to put more effort into their yearly performance counseling and evaluation.
  10. Cross-train your judge advocates, paralegals, and legal administrators with your Civilian employees. This will allow your Civilian employees an opportunity to coach, train, and mentor, and will guarantee you have a back-up labor counselor or ethics attorney when that employee is not at work. Everyone loves an opportunity to show what they know and to share knowledge.

What will all this make you? An “active” manager and leader, rather than a “passive” manager and leader. It’s so tempting to passively manage and lead Civilian employees. I mean, they’ve been doing the job for years, right? They know it better than you, right? So, why not just let them do what they do, and free up some time to do all the other work you have?

Because it’s not fair to them, not fair to the office, and not fair to you as a manager. Employees, even those who don’t need any “help” to do their job because they’re the subject-matter expert, appreciate your taking an interest in them, their work, and their development as professionals. So, take the time to get involved, and watch what happens! You, your employees, and your entire organization will be all the better for the effort you put in! TAL

 


Mr. Koon is the Corps’s Senior Civilian and the Director, Civilian Personnel, Labor and Employment Law, Office of The Judge Advocate General, Pentagon, Washington, D.C.