Workforce Engagement: Working With Special Needs Parents

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I stared at the director in disbelief.  I was in a meeting with my 3rd line supervisor and he had just told me that I would be required to physically be in the office every work day.  What’s wrong with that, you ask?  Well, he might as well have told me that I was fired because I knew that my time at the agency would soon come to an end.  Let me explain.  

At that time, my wife and I only had one child and she had special needs (she is deaf and has cerebral palsy).  We moved three times in 12 years to accommodate her unique situation.  In addition, we changed careers in order to provide a more stable home life and were both now working for the federal government.  We were attracted to the government not only because of their family-friendly policies but with our skillsets, we also saw the potential to build successful careers as well.  I had worked for the government for over 10 years and was serving as a senior manager in a large division with an international focus.  At that time, I had been in that position for a little over a year when I sat down with my boss to discuss a personal problem.

My daughter’s school could no longer provide the level of education that she needed, so we were faced with moving her again (this is a common occurrence for children with multiple challenges).  I told my boss that although we wanted to stay in the area (we lived in the Washington, DC area at that time), the best solution for her was 1,500 miles away in Austin, TX.  I wanted to see if there was a way for me to continue working for the agency, but ultimately I had to do what was best for my family.  I liked my job, had just been recommended (and later received) the agency’s Gold Medal Award for Performance and enjoyed a reputation as an outstanding manager.  Neither my boss nor the agency wanted to lose me, so they were interested in helping me find a resolution.  I asked if it were possible for me to commute to Washington, D.C. on alternate weeks (one week in the office on-site and the next week working remotely in Texas).  I would cover my own travel costs and I would agree to strict work milestones to ensure productivity.  I also agreed to an initial review in 90 days to see if there were any concerns with my performance.  My boss liked the idea and after checking with both Human Resources and the agency chief of staff approved the deal.

With over 25 years employed in positions of progressively greater responsibility, I had experience working in traditional group structures up to and including creative alternative work environments.  I worked with people in an office next door as well as with those located halfway around the world.  As a manager, I have also created work solutions for good employees with extenuating circumstances.  I have had employees who were in the “sandwich” generation (those who found themselves raising children while also caring for aging parents at the same time).  The important thing that I always stressed was that for the organization, the work came first.  The government (or any employer) is not a charity.  As long as the employee’s work performance remained above average, I was willing to be creative in how and where it was accomplished. I have four rules that I normally follow in working with employees with extenuating circumstances:

Be Accountable – At the beginning of the evaluation period, the employee and I will discuss work requirements and develop a plan to accomplish the required tasks.  I try to be as specific as possible so there are no misconceptions about the work to be completed.

Communicate Early and Often – As a manager, I require frequent progress updates (monthly, weekly or depending on the task).  I also require frequent deliverables (times when work products are due) so that I can see early on if an employee is having a problem and can jump in to assist before it is too late.

Keep a Paper Trail – I want to be flexible and helpful because as a manager, I want all of my employees to succeed as well as to ensure that the organizational mission is accomplished.  Unfortunately, special accommodations don’t always work.  By keeping good records, I can objectively evaluate an employee’s job performance and can communicate accordingly.  It is also the way for me to demonstrate productivity of a particular employee if questioned.

Be Fair – The paper trail allows me to be fair to the employee as well as the organization.  It also helps me to see if any other employees are being unfairly impacted by the arrangement.

I believe in the golden rule (treat others as you want to be treated).  In my case, I assumed that the organization would appreciate adherence to these four rules and objectively evaluate my performance.  I also assumed that if my performance remained satisfactory, my employer would continue to honor our agreement.  That was not the case.  The day I met with the agency director, I came armed with facts.  There had been no issues with my performance; my department was functioning smoothly; I was available and provided prompt responses, and my boss and colleagues had no concerns.  In other words, I continued to perform in an outstanding manner.  To the agency director, none of that mattered.  He said that he was canceling our agreement because he wanted me in the office, plain and simple.  He believed that all of his managers should be in the office every day so that if there was a problem, we could resolve it face to face.  It was his style of management and as he said, “I am the boss.”

I had no issue with his pulling rank or having things done his way.  The issue was integrity.  The organization made an agreement but later broke it without cause.  In other words, they lied.  Another interesting fact is that the federal government has something called the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The latest results showed the organization receiving poor marks in the area of senior leadership, especially when it came to trust.

The agency looked for ways to boost employee morale but the culture of distrust was deep.  Obviously, my recent experience led me to agree with the survey results.  Being the professional that I was, I did my best to make things work.  I commuted to Washington, D.C. every Monday morning and flew home every Friday evening.  Eventually, the agency allowed me to work from home every Friday but the damage was already done.  I no longer trusted the organization.  I spent more time trying to protect myself and my reputation than I did doing the work that I enjoyed.  In the end, the stress just became too much and I resigned.  I had to make a choice: work or family.  For me, it was an easy decision.

Many special needs parents are often faced with the same choice.  I was lucky.  My wife still had a job so we had an alternative source of income.  Other families aren’t so lucky.  Still, there was a cost.  In my case, not only to me (I changed careers yet again) but to the organization.  Studies show that on average, it takes nine months to replace an employee who leaves the organization and up to an additional year for the new employee to become fully capable of performing all job functions.  It is also very expensive to recruit and train that new employee.  The objective of workforce engagement is to create an environment where all employees are motivated and committed to performing their best every day.  What kind of environment are you creating?

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